"Homeless and hungry -- please help!": Baltimore's panhandlers ask for our sympathy and loose change. Why are they so polarizing?

Some people give without exception, others never. I set out to meet the individuals who incite both pity & acrimony

Published March 20, 2016 1:00PM (EDT)

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 file photo, Susan St. Amour, 54, a homeless woman, panhandles during the evening commute in Portland, Maine.  A federal judge heard testimony Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challengung an ordinance banning panhandlers from standing in street medians in Portland. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 file photo, Susan St. Amour, 54, a homeless woman, panhandles during the evening commute in Portland, Maine. A federal judge heard testimony Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challengung an ordinance banning panhandlers from standing in street medians in Portland. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

Author’s Note: This story in no way suggests that Baltimore is a city unique with these issues. Indeed, absent specific references to Baltimore areas and landmarks, these observations could reflect on any American city.

Keith takes a break from his usual post near City Hall and takes the light rail to a busy intersection at the far reaches of Timonium near Warren Road.  He claims that it is there that he collected $200 in one day. If true that would make him the hands-down one-day top earner of all Baltimore panhandlers.  He swears by it but admits that the downside can be an eight-hour day producing as little as $10 or $12.

Busy intersections are the real estate of choice for many of Baltimore’s panhandlers. Their brown cardboard signs with the ripped edges read, HOMELESS AND HUNGRY --PLEASE HELP--GOD BLESS, or similar messages. Regardless of why they are standing on that corner, they have polarized the citizenry.

We, the public, have the time it takes for the traffic light to turn green to decide to give or not.  My wife, Joan, gave without exception.  She reasoned that individuals so devoid of self-esteem should at least have some of us working to ease their pain. I could not mount a reasonable counter to that argument if I wanted to.

Yet there are those of us who say without remorse, “I never give to them”


“I just don’t.  They should be working. “

“Look at that guy, he’s as strong as an ox.  Never!”

“What about those who are so obviously damaged by drugs?”

“They should have known better “

Convincing Keith to speak to me wasn’t easy.  He didn’t want to take time away from his post as you “never know what you will miss.” He relents and agrees to talk in my car. He is black, 56, has a high school diploma and says that he did drugs “back in the day” but has been clean for years. He was born in D.C. but came to Baltimore to be with his girlfriend.  He was steadily employed as a big machine operator.

He moved to Atlanta to accompany his girlfriend who wanted to be with her daughter. He lived with her and stayed there living a normal life, employed for eight years. When the relationship ended, he returned to Baltimore and has been unable to find a job. That was five years ago. He lives in a shelter, which he hates as they get everyone up at 5:30 a.m., give them a piece of fruit and get them out. He mimics what he thinks the shelter’s staff might be thinking in a sardonic riff, “OK, we did our part, now hit the bricks.” He has a plan to save money, find a job and leave “the life.” He admits that the plan is nebulous but says he will never give up on it.  His only family is a brother, who he says is sympathetic but “has his own problems.”

I have always suspected that most of us demonstrate a kind of laissez-faire attitude toward panhandlers. Seeing them, if at all, as unfortunates who fade easily into the tapestry of disarray that is modern urban life, people far enough below the social radar to not excite our emotions one way or the other.  I found the opposite to be true.  

We know with reasonable certainty that 65 percent of the nation’s homelessness can be traced to drug addiction. And that lack of expansion of the federal government’s safety net and inadequate social services constitutes an important factor also as to who becomes homeless. Egregiously, the decision to release mentally impaired  individuals onto our city streets with no means of sustenance has dramatically exacerbated this complex problem nationwide.

T. is white, 47, and has the lean look of  someone who has been intimate with hard drugs. His face has made the short journey from emaciated to skeletal from the time that I first saw him, about a year ago. His appearance is no lie. He is in a methadone program, having jumped directly into serious stuff at 16 when he dropped out of school, adding that he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 9.  He is wearing a knee brace and walks with a cane and a limp, the result of years as a landscaper, a brutal job, he says.

We meet at a McDonald's. He likes their breakfast burritos. He is a veteran of the busy intersection of Falls Road and Northern Parkway in northwest Baltimore, a popular venue for those asking alms, sometimes hosting as many as six or seven hopefuls at a time. He seems devoted to his female companion who appears with him at times. She seems to be not well and less so each time I see her. Her out-of-it demeanor screams “drugs.” T. says she is a longtime drug user, is on methadone also and abuses the program by taking other drugs that work against the benefits of methadone. He is frustrated with her. She is 31 and estranged from her abusive husband who he claims has no idea of how to treat a woman.

Five years ago he lived on his then girlfriend’s family farm about 15 miles west of Baltimore  There he raised vegetables, poultry and pigs and would hunt venison and pheasant also. He grew a lot of weed. He says that the first thing he does when he wakes up every day is take a hit. Without it, he claims, his bones creak and he can’t get the fogginess out of his head.  It’s “my medicinal application,” he says. When the romance ended, so did his secure bucolic life. He says his damaged body prevented him from landing any meaningful job.

I ask him what is a good day in terms of money? Twenty-five is fine with him, over 40 bountiful. Does he bristle at what a sometimes insensitive public says to him. “They can call me anything, but what really pisses me off is when they tell me to stop faking.”  Why doesn’t he work? He says he will. His sign reads, “Will work for fair wage,” but holding a steady job is problematic as he can wake up on any day hobbled.

Jeffrey’s steady gig is the sidewalk in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art, MICA, adjacent to the expressway ramp going north. He plods from there to the ramp and back again, occasionally offering feeble waist-high waves to passing cars, greeting those who will hopefully dispense emergency funds to his cause.

He stumbles a lot. And speaks as if he had spent most of his 35 years taking punches. He is sporting a resplendent black eye. “Got in a ... I got jumped.” He needed time to consider his reply to my opening question, “What’s your name?” The amount of time required suggested that he had not heard.  But the response finally comes.  It is as if his words were reluctantly regurgitated, not spoken at all but expelled with some discomfort.

With no traffic on a Sunday afternoon, we were able to chat a bit before deciding to meet later in the week. He has made $12 so far and needs 25 more to make his “rent.”  He said that he is homeless but pays to crash at a place near the Institute so he is protected from harsh weather. The thought of sleeping in the snow terrifies him. Traffic convenes and I say I will come this way during the week. He is there every day from 8 a.m.

I return on a Tuesday and see him plying his trade at noon. I wave through my open window and expect him to cross the street toward me but he goes the other way and walks hurriedly up a one-way street where I can’t follow. He turns and stares at me. I wave to him. He shakes his head, turns and walks away. I blow the horn. He keeps walking. I had forewarned myself that I might run into odd behavior doing this so I wasn’t surprised and drove home.

B. is 60-ish, very thin and looks as if she used to model tennis togs for Talbots. With Tretorn sneakers, beige khakis and pastel polo shirt she would not seem out of place getting into an estate wagon with a “Life Is a Beach” bumper sticker. Yet here she is, out of place but stalwart in the face of a tough business. Her streaked gray/blond hair looks almost cared for and her nails are clean, but the shuffle and downcast eyes are the same as the others', doleful and pleading.

I tell her that I would like to interview her for an article I am writing. I am holding up traffic, but no one honks. She backs up as if I had shoved a snake in her face. “No, no, I can’t, I’m embarrassed.” I tell her that names or photos will not be used. She hesitates, almost mollified, but keeps her distance. Then emphatically, “No, no, I can’t!

Encounters with her and others like her, however brief, can either melt resistance or strengthen one’s cynicism. For most of us, though, the people who seek our sympathy and loose change are below our level of recognition. One can say with reasonable certainty that for many who have come to this, it is the last stop in a life of not being at the top of anyone’s priority list.

A. is black , in his mid-50s, ill-concealing  a shadow of belligerence behind a scant smile. He stations himself on a corner between a post office and a Starbucks, assuring himself a continual flow of potential givers. His sign reads, HOMELESS & HUNGRY – PLEASE HELP! And then,  I AM NOT INVISIBLE! Not certain whether the sign-off sentence helps or hurts his efforts; if not biting the hand that may feed you, then surely it is chastising the person who might.

Perhaps he hopes that audacity sets him apart from the default humility of most mendicants. He seems to want everyone passing to know that though he may do this he is certainly not relishing it. The sign and his not-so-vague you-owe-me demeanor does not appear to be igniting an avalanche of contributions. I tell him I am doing a story and would he like to speak to me. He turns away. I proffer cash from the window. He approaches and I repeat my reason for wanting to speak to him, promising anonymity. He takes the money, not gently, and walks away. Clearly, the meeting is over before it’s begun.

Daniel is 28, with clean blond hair and discreet gun-metal gray eyes that click into focus when addressed He is good-looking in a real-world, less precious DiCaprio kind of way. He is interested when I tell him I am doing a story. He would like to talk to me but today’s not good, how about noon tomorrow? I return the next day. He doesn’t show. Returning another day, he spots me immediately and walks toward me apologizing for standing me up.

We drive to a secluded street and begin. He is easy to talk to; open and less guarded than the others I have spoken to.

His father was disengaged, a bare memory. His mother was a “raging drug addict,” driven insane by the hellish chemicals that mercifully ended a life too short. He has never done habitual hard drugs or grass and is trying to quit smoking.

He has a high school diploma via GED and an honorable discharge from the Army, doing two tours in Afghanistan. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He considered making the Army his career and though he was in danger of being killed at any time, found no sane reason for the war. The military, he says, does its best to make you hate those you are fighting. He couldn’t understand why so ancient a civilization would suddenly come around to our way of thinking simply because we thought it was a good idea. It made no sense to him and he decided to do his time and return to civilian life, however meager his opportunities might be back home.

He lives in a shelter for veterans and is grateful to qualify. He is not sympathetic to those not afflicted by drug dependency or mental problems who remain on the streets for years. He says there are too many resources available to those experiencing problems for them not to avail themselves. He is taking advantage of the Veterans Administration’s countless opportunities to learn a business or trade. He says that he will be off the streets by the end of the year. Of those that I have spoken to, Daniel would be the one I’d bet on to do it.

At an intersection across town, Denny is busy dispensing anemic waves to potential benefactors passing in cars. He is an ex-con. He quit school two days into his junior year, “I was the only white face in the class.” He turned to burglaries and continued until being apprehended and sentenced, doing three and a half years of a maximum 10-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. He is 48 and has been on the streets for seven years. He says he is positive for Hep-C and has epileptic seizures about every six to eight weeks. He drinks beer regularly but stops short at about 10 bottles a day because too much gives him the DT’s. He is taking Keppra, an anti-convulsion drug. He would love to smoke weed but can’t afford it.

Was prison a horrible experience for a teenager? “Not really.” I blink, incredulous.  He says nothing more.

As soon as he collects $12 on any given day, he leaves his corner for lunch, beers and cigarettes. He returns to his station to reap dinner and beer money for the evening. I ask him if when things seem to be going well on any day if he considers staying and making as much as he can.  He shakes his head, “Nah, I ain’t greedy.”

As for shelter, he considers himself luckier than many people on the street. Although he has an adversarial relationship with his ex-wife, she allows him to crash on her back porch, which is not enclosed but is sheltered somewhat by heavy canvas awnings. She doesn’t allow him to enter the house under any circumstance. He can’t remember the last time he showered.

He will not go to shelters as they are "run by hardcore ex-cons, all nigs,” and in his opinion, are not safe for people of any color. There are fights, thefts and an overall complexion of impending danger. The government? “They don’t care, they just let them run by themselves. It ain’t good!”

Don is 52, a Baltimore native who also quit school in the 10th grade, embarking on a career of full-time drug user and sometime house painter. His family offered no guidance. He exudes a solid physicality that suggests to me he once boxed. He says he hadn’t. The broken nose casts some doubt. He has three children, 31, 26 and 5, none of whom he ever sees. Does it bother him not seeing his kids?  Not really, he says glibly but not convincingly. I ask him about drugs. He says that he was a big-time abuser and is in a methadone program now. He has been at this intersection for about a year.

When I ask him about his wife, he erupts furiously, “What the fuck do you want from me, man?  I’ve given you everything, that’s the whole story, what more do you want?”

I apologize and realize that for him it may very well be the whole story. A family not close, an incomplete education, a war with drugs lost, failed relationships and the streets. A life with no texture, I think, the saddest kind.

Does he consider the future?

“I take it day to day”

Is he angry?

“At what? No, I’m not an angry person except when kids throw things at me from passing cars. They don’t get it!”

I thank him and give him some money, maybe equal to a half-day’s work on a bad day. He doesn’t smile but seems appreciative when I wish him the best.

Almost all of the individuals in the tiny sampling that I interviewed seem at ease with their fate.  Dropping out of school is a common thread as are drugs and cursory parental guidance. Do they think they were dealt bad breaks? Some do. Others seem fatalistic in thinking there were no alternatives for them, no might-have-beens. I come away thinking that they deserve more pity than acrimony. I am not convinced, as some maintain, that giving to them perpetuates and worsens an issue of such complexity and magnitude. Perhaps having no self-esteem is the most subtle and damaging affliction of all. For good or bad, this disenfranchised demimonde has fashioned a détente with a complex society. And as it is with most accommodations that work, both sides seem willing to go along with the other‘s real or imagined shortcomings.

By Matt Lallo

Matt Lallo lives in Baltimore, MD, and has written restaurant reviews for the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Magazine. He continues to write topical articles and short stories.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Baltimore Homelessness Panhandlers Poverty