Main | Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime (Bag)?

One of the most striking differences between living in San Francisco and New York is the panhandling situation. As any San Francisco resident or visitor will attest, you can hardly walk 100 feet down any city street without being aggressively begged for money. Friends and I once counted being asked for money eight times over four Market Street blocks.

In Manhattan, despite a population many times that of SF, panhandling is much less pervasive and infinitely more soft-pedaled. This, because despite a law against panhandling being repealed in 1992, the NYPD continues to arrest beggars. Since the '92 law was ruled unconstitutional, 10,000 have been locked up, 3500 in NYC alone.

A recent NYC ordinance allows cops to arrest beggars who behave in a "menacing or threatening manner" - a subjective call totally in the hands of the cops. Knowing this, panhandlers tend to work the trains or other very crowded areas where they can easily disappear into crowds if someone decides to call the po-po on them. It's not as easy as passively accosting passersby while squatting on the sidewalk, but it beats jail. One notable exception would be the elderly man who daily sets up a cardboard desk on 42nd Street near Grand Central, wailing "Pleeeeeeease help me" every 15 seconds. His woeful yet hypnotic cadence became a years-long catchphrase in our office whenever somebody was mired in a difficult project. Pleeeeeeeeease help me. Extra food often made it down from the 26th floor to that man.

Yesterday, a Manhattan federal judge approved moving forward a class-action suit on behalf of six street beggars. The first beggar involved in the suit, a crackhead with 52 arrests, settled with the city last year for $100,000. Money, I suppose most would presume, he immediately spent on 10,000 dime bags. I don't know how I feel about this lawsuit. I definitely feel for some, but probably not most, of the panhandlers I encounter in NYC. I do know I'm glad that I don't have to endure SF-level begging.

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