Monday, September 19, 2005

An Idea for Homeless People (or, My Days as a Professional Panhandler)

On Thursday, outside of Penn Station, a young guy approaches me for a donation in support of some animal rights group. Thinking about Ozzie, I immediately decline, but as a former canvasser myself, I force a sympathetic smile before I push onward.


When I first moved to New York, in August '04, I got a job working for Grassroots Campaigns Inc., a for-profit "progressive" corporation, founded, at least in part, to help defeat George Bush that November. GCI hires and trains large numbers of people to fundraise and organize for liberal or progressive organizations. When I was working for them, they were partnered with the Democratic National Committee and MoveOnPAC.

GCI lured me in with what sounded like a great deal: if you work as an "assistant director" (read: glorified canvasser) in our New York City office for a couple months, hiring canvassers to raise money for the DNC and doing some canvassing yourself (read: 5 hours/day), when it gets closer to the election we'll make you a field organizer in a swing state for MoveOn PAC's get-out-the-vote campaign.

Thus began my career going door-to-door in New York City, asking, over and over and over again: "Do you want to help defeat George Bush?"

Truth is, despite working 14, 15, 18 hours a day, six days a week, the job had a certain flavor to it that I enjoyed. In Columbus Circle one man spit on me. In Park Slope, a guy who looked like Newman from Seinfeld screamed at me to get a real job. On a scorching hot afternoon in Montclair, NJ, a man opened the door with his board shorts completely undone and no underwear. "I'm a little busy, dude," he told me. "And I'm a Republican." In Forest Hills, Queens, an elderly couple invited me into their backyard for lemonade and complained that they'd always voted Democrat but couldn't vote for Kerry because he was so pro-choice. "He likes aborting a lot more than Clinton, you know."

Though I was on the "door" team, during the Republican National Convention everyone in the office worked for "street." We fanned out to sidewalks across the city, and as it got closer and closer to the day of President Bush's speech, more and more people would throw money at us. Women wrote 500 dollar checks and spoke in gleeful tones usually reserved for old friends. Credit card numbers were handed over like bread crumbs to ducks at the park. Pats on the back were commonplace. Hugs were not unknown.

I liked "working the street." On door duty you had to present yourself as trustworthy and professional (no one wants a creep knocking on his door, which is why all of our more Asperger-ish canvassers were placed on street the second they were hired). Street canvassing, on the other hand, allowed for more creativity. Theatrics were encouraged. And whereas knocking on a Bush supporter's door could always lead to uncomfortable moments, on the street, those people would avoid you, unless they had saliva to unleash.

One night I was assigned to prowl Lafayette Street and it started pouring. It was a cold rain, windy, and an older woman moved briskly down the street, clutching her umbrella in one hand and a young girl, who I took to be her granddaughter, in the other. While she was still a few yards away I smiled and yelled, "Would you like to help defeat George Bush?" Rain beat down on me.

She scowled. "It's pouring rain," she yelled back.

"I know," I answered, as she walked closer.

"I hate you fucking people," she said. She gave me 200 dollars and continued on her way.


A mix of Jewish holidays and other events in the city forced us "door" types to spend more time on "street" duty. Occasionally, I found myself embroiled in turf wars with others soliciting money on the street. There were, generally speaking, two types of potential rivals: other recent college grads, working for groups like Human Rights Campaign or Amnesty International, and homeless people.

Of the first group, my favorite were the representatives from Children's International, a Save the Children-style outfit, who encouraged passerby to "adopt" impoverished foreign children for "an easy eighteen dollars a month." The CI folks carried clipboards with pictures and profiles of the various available kids, and on a few occasions I encountered CI reps debating which child to put on the front of their clipboards. ("The Indian boy has such a sad story, but the cleft lip might be a little much for some people.")

All of these organizations require their reps to "make quota" each day. At GCI, canvassers were generally supposed to bring in between 200-300 dollars a day; the exact quota depended on the averages from the previous week and other factors. While us "assistant directors" were safe even if we had a couple of slow days, the regular canvassers risked dismissal if they couldn't bring in the dough. Outside of Hunter College one day, I found myself stuck on the same street corner with a girl from Children's International. Bored, I tried to strike up conversation.

"So what's your quota?" I asked her suavely.

"What's yours?" she responded, cautious.

"About 200 dollars," I said.

She shrugged. "Three kids."


The homeless people were a different matter entirely.

To be clear, when I refer to "homeless people" I am not including those who I will from here on out call The Crazy And Unorganized. These are the people your parents told you not to make eye contact with when you were eight and visiting your grandparents in Manhattan. Typical symptoms of The Crazy And Unorganized include speaking in gibberish, talking to one's self, and inordinate amount of loud discussion about Christ Jesus. Rarely in my experience do The Crazy And Unorganized explicitly ask for money, though it's not totally out of the ordinary for passerby to give them change or a sandwich anyway. (Side note: The insane, like cats and small children, seem particularly attracted to those who are most skittish around them, which is why I am taunted by them with some frequency).

The Sane And Unorganized didn't provide us with much competition either. The Sane And Unorganized include the wide variety of fully (or mostly) competent people who, for one reason or another, have ended up on the street.

No, our only real competition among the homeless came from The Sane And Organized. If you've spent even a day in New York, you've seen them. They stand behind tables. On the tables are large water bubbler bottles to hold change. They often have hand-outs. Their monologues always features certain catchphrases: "I am a homeless person... Small change means big change... Every penny counts." They are part of an official organization. This is their job.

The message is clear: yes, we're homeless, but we're also official. Your money is going to good things. And hey, at least we're being upfront about it and we're out here trying to change the situation.


Outside the Silver Center at NYU one day I was handing out fliers; GCI had new canvassing positions available ASAP. I was in close proximity with an "official" homeless woman on the corner. "Small change is big change!" she sang. I watched her for a few hours and she probably collected 20 dollars by the end of the afternoon. I figured if one of our canvassers was in that same spot for the DNC, he or she would have left with about 400.


Americans are strange about giving.

While on the street for GCI, my only identification was a DNC T-shirt and a name-tag. When donors paid by credit card they received a "receipt," but it was handwritten... by me. In hindsight, it would be incredibly easy for just about anyone to claim to be a canvasser representing the DNC.

Of course, I did have certain advantages when it came to looking "legitimate." I'm white, and Americans are, at least subconsciously, white supremacist. I have no doubt if I was black I would have had a much more difficult time soliciting funds. I look around college-age, and the vast majority of "real" canvassers are college students or recent college grads. And I can hold down a conversation about politics.

While it's quite concievable that I (or someone like me) could have pretended to be a canvasser for the DNC in order to get money for other purposes, with the homeless, well... If you give money to a homeless person, you know for sure where the money is going. True, you can't guarantee a man begging for, say, food, will use your money to buy food. But he will, without a doubt, use your money.

Of course, giving is never about who the giver is giving to, but how it makes the giver feel. A liberal (or conservative) can write a 100 dollar check to a favorite liberal (or conservative) cause, and feel as if he or she is somehow helping push forward the cause, without actually lifting a finger. Do I believe most of the money we collected in August '04 went to the DNC? Of course (some, obviously, went to GCI to pay our salaries). Do I think the money was used effectively? Well, I don't know, but given the outcome of the election, probably not. Do I have the foggiest idea where, exactly, a single dime I collected ended up? Nope.

Bottom line: Giving to a peppy, idealistic college grad, invested in the same cause you're invested in, well, that feels good. Giving to an unkempt person on the street? Not so much. Is one more constructive than the other? Depends on the case, of course, but in DNC v. The Homeless: I strongly doubt it.


Which leads me to an idea for The Sane And Organized: Instead of being upfront about your homelessness, invest your first week's earnings in khakis and a button down shirt. Then, instead of standing on the corner yelling "I am a homeless person...," stand on the corner and yell, "I am trying to help the homeless." When prospective donors come your way, make up the name of an official-sounding do-gooder organization (People For The Ethical Treatment of Homeless People, etc.), say you're a student at one of the local colleges, and that all donations will go straight toward helping the homeless. You must present yourself as if you know as little about actually being homeless as possible. Sympathetic stories about yourself must always be told in the third person. Smile--but not too much! these are sad, tragic stories you're telling. If an actual homeless person walks by don't make eye contact. And if you feel yourself starting to sound self-righteous, well... keep going.


At 1:14 AM, Blogger defjef from the far left said...

hahahaha i used to do that kinda stuff. i recently ran into some kids that travel around the country stopping at collage campuses selling mag subscriptions. you never get your mags but they look offical no one gives a fuck wut you say its all about how you say it and wut you look like saying it. word

At 10:51 PM, Blogger GTF said...

YES. Great essay my friend.


Post a Comment

<< Home