Despite the city's seemingly magnetic pull for panhandlers, most Palo Alto homeless spurn the option of begging for change.
A survey published in the 1995 Consolidated Plan of the City of Palo Alto found more than 150 homeless people in Palo Alto. However, the survey, done by a group of students, homeless and community activists, found fewer than a dozen regular panhandlers on University Avenue.
Similar numbers are found elsewhere.
In "From Lemons to Lemonade," an article published in the New England Journal of Public Policy, Louise Clark analyzed research from seven studies and estimated that only about 17 percent of homeless actually panhandle.
Instead of begging for help, a number of homeless manage to hold down a minimum wage job or two. According to the Homelessness in Santa Clara County Project, in 1995 25 percent of homeless in Santa Clara County were working. However, a part-time job paying $5 an hour barely covers food and other basic necessities short of housing.
Some of the rest receive Social Security checks, unemployment payments or disability; others obtain help from their families.
Those that do ask for change are often looked down upon by others in the transient community.
Daniel Durio is one of the many who frequent the Urban Ministry's Drop-in Center, across the street from the downtown Caltrain station.
"A person has to be about this big to ask another person for money," Durio said, indicating the height by placing his hand about a foot above the ground.
Another local homeless man named Robert Peterson, Petey for short, is an elderly man in a wheelchair. With sparkling eyes, the sometimes-panhandler analyzed the occupation bluntly. "It ain't cool," he said. Petey himself has been known to "fly a sign" that asks for money, but most of his cash flow comes from the government in the form of a Social Security check.
According to another man, who just goes by Lou, the major problem with panhandling is that "you're not in control of your own life. You're at the mercy of others and their comments."
Lou admitted that the occupation often "creates tensions between those who panhandle and those who don't." Begging makes people "stagnant" because it causes them to wait for someone else to take action instead of making an effort to extend themselves, he said.
Jim Schneider, a former tree trimmer, indicated that panhandling wasn't necessarily bad, but it was something that he was uncomfortable doing. "I just can't do it," he said.
Most of the negative feelings and stereotypes about panhandlers, they agreed, came from the aggressive, in-your-face type, that feel they deserve your change. Lou said that he had "nothing against panhandlers who are well-mannered," but rather it was the mean and belligerent ones that he disliked.
Durio also said that "aggressive panhandlers put a bad name on all of us." He acknowledged, however, that they were just "doing what they got to do" to live.
They said didn't usually just take the bad reputation that hostile panhandlers bring. One particularly aggressive panhandler named Michael Jackson roamed the area last year, and would, according to Durio, "follow you down a block asking for money."
Jackson was soon chased out of town as he began to give the non-aggressive homeless a bad name. "He made a signature on the rest of us," Durio said. "When a person says no, they mean no!"
--Corey Fugman, Solange Jacobs and Jamie Ellis
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