Monday, November 12, 2018

Homeless, With Pets

Image result for homeless with dog

When you are homeless and destitute, how can you afford a pet?

Nearly two decades ago, we took a trip to Paris with Mark's company in order to visit a number of famous restaurants and food suppliers. It was quite an education, although at the time I was not at an age where I could really appreciate such an amazing experience.

While we were there, we visited a number of tourist spots.  And at one of them there was a man with a long beard playing the violin.  Next to him was a little tiny four poster bed and in the bed under the covers was a kitten and a dachshund arm-in-arm sleeping.  Above the bed there was a sign that said "Ne Pas Derangeur!" - meaning do not disturb.

It was so cute and charming we couldn't help but throw a few francs or euros into his open violin case.  But one of the Parisians at the scene chided us in French and we didn't quite understand what she was saying.

We found out later on (and it has been quite well documented) that this charming little scene on the street was no accident.  The beggar in question was actually part of a larger organization. They provide the animals, which are drugged so they sleep all day long.  They also provide little four-poster bed and the other accouterments necessary to make the scheme work.  Violin lessons, I guess, are extra.

This sort of changed our opinion about the entire thing.  It was no longer some charming little old man playing the violin with his pets sleeping soundly but rather some organized scheme to coax money from tourists' pockets.  And the reason why the Parisian lady was chastising us for giving money was that we were only encouraging that sort of thing and perpetuating it. And apparently Parisians were just tired of this sort of street begging.

Begging, of course, goes on around the world.  In many parts of Europe, or indeed in Mexico and other Latin American countries, people will smear dirt on the faces of their children and beg on the streets, claiming that the children need medicine or something.  But often these aren't even their own children. They actually can rent children for the purpose of having a prop for begging.  It is all very highly organized and orchestrated.

In some countries, begging is seen almost as a profession.  I'm told that in India, beggars have their own union, so to speak.  It is an age-old tradition - begging for alms - and it spans multiple cultures and goes back to before even biblical days.  And no doubt some of these beggars are desperately in need of money to survive.  But for the most part, many of these Beggars are doing quite well or could do other things that would be productive employment, but simply choose not to, because begging can often be more lucrative gig.

Begging is tax free. As I noted before in this blog, any activity that is tax-free is highly profitable. The only reason drug-dealing is profitable is that is largely un-taxed.  Many people rushing into the marijuana business, now that it is legalized it may States, are finding out that it is not as lucrative a business as they thought. There's a lot of competition that keeps prices down and costs are very high, particularly as it is difficult to use traditional banks and the IRS is not allowing them to deduct any normal business expenses.  It turns out the only reason selling pot was profitable at all was it was an all-cash business and undeclared income.

So is begging.  And since it is tax-free, you don't have to worry about your begging income resulting in a cut into your food stamps, Obamaphone, or other government handouts, which taper off, once you start making taxable income.

But not only is begging tax-free, it is also quite lucrative.  If you sit at a busy intersection in a popular tourist town and collect a dollar from every 10 people who walked by, you could end up easily making $20, $30, $40, or even $100 an hour - which is why beggars beg in tourist towns and big cities and not in your small hometown, where there is not a lot of foot traffic (and everyone knows you and that you are faking it).

Decades ago, I read an article in New York Magazine about a man who started begging in Grand Central Station.  He lost his job in Manhattan and realized on the way home to Long Island that he didn't have enough change for his train fare.  He approached somebody and explained his plight and before he could even finish the story, the man said, "yeah, yeah," and handed him a few dollars.

Encouraged, he approached somebody else, and pretty soon he had over $50 in his pocket.  He went home that day and never told his wife he lost his job.  The next day, he went back to Grand Central Station and asked more people for money, spending the day there with his carefully orchestrated plea. He kept us up for months before his wife finally found out he lost his job, when she tried to call his office.  But what he realized, was that he was making nearly as much money panhandling as he was working in an office.  And what's more, he was collecting unemployment at the same time.  And the panhandling money was tax-free.

The man or woman you see on the street begging (it seems to be mostly a male profession, for some reason) in all likelihood doesn't really need your money, but would rather like to have it. We've run into this several times in our lives.  When we lived in Washington DC, we were often approached by people wearing nicer clothes than us, claiming to be homeless and wanting money from us. And when you refuse to give the money, they start cursing at you or even threatened violence.

For many homeless people, panhandling is a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. Granted, most homeless people have mental illness and substance abuse problems. But rather than seek help, they find it much more convenient to live on the streets and get as high as possible by whatever means necessary, and hit people up for money to pay for it.  And drugs are not cheap, either!

You might argue that this is harmless to everyone except for the homeless person in question.  But the problem is, these folks end up living in homeless camps and defecating and urinating on the street which spreads diseases. We are seeing outbreaks of cholera and other third world diseases in places like California because of these types of encampments.  There reaches a point where you run out of empathy.

There is also the issue how it affects businesses and people.  We were in New Orleans and were sitting in the upstairs outdoor balcony of a bar, enjoying a cold beverage.  Across the street was a small hamburger joint and the owner of the restaurant was quite disturbed that there were the congregation of homeless people loitering out front, apparently quite intoxicated.

They were not only were causing a disturbance, they were scaring away all of his customers, which if left unchecked, would it eventually put him out of business. He finally came outside and managed to persuade them to move on down the block.  Homelessness isn't funny or cute or pitiful - it is simply annoying to the rest of us.

What was interesting to us about homelessness in The Big Easy was how uniform it was.  The people in question were all fairly young - under 30 or so - and all wore an almost identical uniform of ragged clothes and a backpack.  They also all had dogs which I found disturbing.

Like our friend in Paris with his cat and dachshund in the four-poster bed, these young homeless people were using the pets as a means of generating sympathy.  At the very least, they were hoping somebody would come by and want to pet the dog and then throw them a dollar.  Or they hoped someone would feel sorry for the dog, even if they lacked empathy for a smelly 20-something on drugs.

As you might imagine, these dogs were not very healthy.  Undoubtedly none of them had ever had any of their inoculations or were treated for fleas or intestinal parasites.  Undoubtedly they were not fed dog food would rather whatever scraps of food the homeless person didn't finish. These are dogs that would live short and uncomfortable lives.  They were scrawny and underfed, and this was perhaps by design - to generate sympathy.

I noted before that owning a pet is not a cheap proposition. With Veterinary bills, food bills, and even occasional boarding, even the basic dog can run a few thousand dollars a year in costs.  To be homeless and claim to be destitute and yet have a luxury like a pet seems like an anathema.

But of course these pets are more than merely pets - they are actually tools of the begging trade. Like I said it was very uniform - it wasn't just one or two of these homeless people had a dog, all of them had a dog.

What was even more disturbing as we sat at this balcony bar upstairs as we saw a congregation of these dog-owning homeless gather together in the street below - almost a dozen of them. They talked with one another and then scattered to their assigned positions in the city to beg for the evening - catching the tourist rush as people left bars intoxicated and were free with their money.  It was almost like a cult, and may have in fact been one.  Cults often force young people to beg for money to generate tax-free income for the cult leader.

As I noted before, only in America can you be homeless and have a cell phone.  I saw the other day - a man talking on a cellphone while begging for money from passing cars.  This struck me as rather jarring.  After all, how can you afford a cell phone if you are homeless?  Of course, in this country we have free cell phones sometimes derisively refereed to as Obama phones and thus even the homeless can have a cell phone.  Some argue that they need a cell phone to call for job interviews - and I am sure a few do.  The rest?  They aren't looking for no stinking job.

And that brings us to another point - there are jobs galore in tourist towns.  Every bar and restaurant and tourist trap has a "help wanted" sign out front.  Wages may be low, but tips are good.   But you can make more money begging than waiting tables - and the "boss" in the begging business doesn't exist, so he doesn't yell at you for showing up for work high all the time.  Begging is a more lucrative gig, for people who like to wallow in self-indulgence.

Stranger still, even though you're homeless, you can also have a blog or even your own YouTube channel as one reader recently pointed out. The YouTube channel in question is a v-log or video blog and the homeless person in question spends most of the time bemoaning how awful his life is.

This reminds me a bit of poverty girl, who became quasi-famous for setting up a blog and then writing a book saying how awful it was to be poor in America - and how awful America is.  Of course, she came from a good family and had a good education and was rather intelligent and probably chose poverty rather than fell into it . And as soon as she sold her book, she ended up clawing her way out of poverty - and ended up owning a home.  Kind of hard to be homeless when you own a home.

To me, watching this all from the balcony above, the real tragedy wasn't these kids were needy or desperate or starving - far from it. Several were in fact quite overweight.  The real tragedy was that these were people in the prime of their life and yet chose this lifestyle.  These were young people whose best working years were quickly slipping away from them.  In an era of record low unemployment, where jobs are freely available, they made the choice - and it was a conscious choice - to live on the streets, do drugs, and beg for money from other people.

Others their age made different choices - harder choices to be sure.   Working hard and showing up on time and serving drinks to intoxicated tourists and pretending to listen to their stupid stories is not easy work.  But it beats living on the street and dying of an opioid overdose, doesn't it?

While living on the streets and doing drugs might seem like fun when you're a teenager or even in your early 20's, what happens 50 years from now? (assuming they live that long?).  With no money in the bank and not even a paycheck stub to fund your social security, retirement will be scary, to say the least.  But of course, the odds are that these kids won't live very long on the street, as it will wear on their health.  And of course heavy drug use isn't going to extend their life much, either.

The real tragedy is that these kids are throwing their lives away in an orgy of self-pity and drug abuse. They are at the age where, under normal circumstances, they would be getting their first apartment, their first job, falling in love, and getting married - and possibly having children. These are all wonderful things that will be denied to them.  That's what made me sad.  It's not that they are needy - in America people don't starve to death. They have enough food to eat, enough drugs to consume, and even a cellphone and a dog.

And no, they don't need my money.  It is like the lady in Paris who chastised us for giving money to the man with the dachshund and the kitten.  If I give money to these kids, it only perpetuates their lives on the streets, it makes it even more attractive.  It is, in a way, like feeding squirrels. Once you start feeding squirrels, your house will be overrun by squirrels - as I can attest from personal experience.

Or just like the experience we had a seaside restaurant in Mexico. There was a sign there saying "Please do not feed the birds."  And some idiot had his young daughter hold out a french fry so the seagulls could take it from her hand.  I asked him not to do this and he told me to mind my own business.  However, within about ten minutes, the entire restaurant was swarmed with about 50 seagulls, and we were all forced to flee - with food being scattered everywhere and bird shit all over the place.

When you feed seagulls, you end up attracting more seagulls.  Now, if I say this, people will say I'm heartless and comparing homeless people to seagulls or squirrels, but the effect is the same.   Human nature or animal nature - we all have similar behavioral modes.  And when you start handing out money to homeless people, you can expect to see more and more of them.  It is the bug-light effect.

If you really want to help the homeless, contribute to a homeless shelter.  Or better yet, vote for candidates who want to increase spending on mental health care and mental health institutions, the latter of which are desperately needed for the increasing number of people who are seriously mentally ill and can no longer take care of themselves - and are a danger to others.

Handing a few dollars or more to some guy on the street isn't solving anything, even if it makes you feel better about yourself.  And again, that's the sickest part of the whole deal - people do this not to actually help the homeless person, but so they can feel superior to others because they "care" more.

And that's the real problem. Not the homeless person, but the person who gives money to the homeless person.  That person really is the sick one.

Now, it should be noted that some people asking for money on the street are not "homeless" but selling items or services.  Buskers perform in the street for money, even if the performance consists of nothing more than beating on a pickle barrel with a stick.  Others form bands and play music.  Some sell tourist items, sing, dance, or whatever.  This is different than merely sitting there asking for money with a sign saying, "traveler stranded, please help!" (the sign is quite old, of course - they've been "stranded" for more than a year!).

I knew a guy in Alexandria who worked this way. A chronic alcoholic, he bicycled around the city, offering to wash windows on your office, for a nominal fee.  He had all the right equipment, and even made follow-up appointments to clean again.  He, at least, was offering some service in exchange for cash, and it was a good service as well (our office was near a bus stop, and city buses would belch diesel soot on the front windows).

In New Orleans, we saw an enterprising older man with a shopping cart, picking through the trash to find recyclable metals - finding a jackpot of aluminum light fixtures at one store that was being remodeled.  We saw him several times all around the quarter, and I complimented him on his enterprise. The only problem with the recycling, though, is that some "homeless" take it a bit too far - particularly meth heads - and decide your house's wiring and plumbing or your air conditioning unit are ready to be "recycled" - without your consent, of course.

But even buskers can be overdone.  We saw one humorous situation where one set of buskers was waiting for a street corner to be cleared by another set, so they could perform.  We came back an hour later and apparently the dispute had been resolved, as the first group had moved down a block.  Again, local businesses are often not too happy that someone has decamped to their doorstep to perform.   Yet others sometimes welcome it, as it attracts people to the restaurant.  It all depends on the talent involved - we saw one restaurateur ask a policeman to move a busker down the road, as his genre was badly played heavy metal on a portable amplifier - not the sort of thing one comes to the French Quarter to enjoy.

But the bottom line is, after a while, you do run out of empathy for all these street people - who are not on the street because of circumstance, but because it is lifestyle choice. And the number of seriously mentally ill people on the street is no laughing matter.  Perhaps they have less of a choice in the matter.  But that is one reason why I say, we need to fund mental institutions and other support services rather than hand out $10 bills to some rambling person on the street. 

A reader writes:
Where I live, Los Angeles, every year the trap gets more pronounced as the mental illness problem increases, and normal people act submissive to crazy people out of a sense of compassion or fear of being publicly chastised.  Actually, it's probably more the latter, the former being a politically correct rationalization for not taking action.  Thus, we pay the price by being subjected to the mentally ill on a regular basis. 
The other day, I was sitting outside a cafe when this crazy guy comes by to rant and rave about random horseshit.  He didn't exactly look homeless, and I'm not sure just how mentally ill he was, but somehow he thought it was okay to come up to people who are enjoying their meals and shout obscenities in their faces.  Of course, everyone sat there and took it out of fear and "oh, he can't help it." (The Compassion Trap!)
I see this kind of thing all the time in LA, and the problem is so bad now that store owners will actually see these characters wander on to their premises and do nothing about it.  But my patience for this shit ended this time.  Since today's society can jump down your throat on social media if you do the wrong thing even slightly, I waited for this man to say something indefensible, which I knew he would.  Lo and behold, he moved on from rambling about Obama to ranting about how "all women are whores."
I chose to respond out loud, telling him I'm tired of hearing hearing him, asking him who the hell he was talking to, then telling him that nobody here was interested in listening and that he needed to leave.  He acted like a smarmy jackass, as if he was in the right to behave that way in public, but left in a hurry once it was clear I wasn't going to back down.
And probably, he was right - if someone with a cell phone made a video of this confrontation, the "homeless" person would be lauded, and the diner would be shamed.  How dare he talk back?  The homeless are saints - beatified - and the rest of us are awful people for making money and supporting ourselves and paying taxes and funding our retirements.

But as I have noted before, I think a lot of people in the US simply can't believe their good fortune - that somehow they don't deserve that big house and giant SUV.  And maybe they are right - the bullshit job they have really shouldn't pay six figures.   So they hand $10 to some raving lunatic on the street to feel better about themselves, and as I noted before, to show other people that they are better as well.

I wish there was a simple answer to this problem.  Like I said, the real tragedy is that these kids (and many of them are very young) are throwing their lives away with this begging nonsense.  It is not the economy, or Republican meanness or Democratic socialism or whatever group you want to blame. It is a complex issue involving mental illness, but also the self-indulgence of drug abuse.

Maybe if we made this a harder choice, people would be less inclined to do it?  Nah!