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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hard Times in the Neighborhood

He stands on a traffic island along the borders of Port Richmond Village, holding up a crude cardboard sign: Homeless, Out of Work, Won’t You Help? His name changes everyday. Some days he’s a short guy, other times he’s tall. One week he carries a knapsack, other times he has a plastic bag filled with clothes tied to his back.
The people in their cars, eager to get onto Aramingo Avenue, rarely stop to deposit change into his paper cup. Some motorists don’t seem to care that he may be panhandling for drugs or a swig of Jack Daniels, and give him fistfuls of change. Most people clearly understand that the world economy is such that the ranks of the homeless are growing, that what one assumed about the homeless ten years ago, is not a valid assumption today.
Old adages like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!” or “Get a job!” no longer apply, especially when there are few jobs to be had. Even folks who have jobs are reporting cutbacks, layoffs, and so called furloughs where employers demand that employees take off two weeks twice a year without pay. This new trend in the American workplace-- forced “vacations” without pay-- was unheard of just a few years ago.
Ironically, as things get worse for the average worker, prices continue to go up, forcing people to make cutbacks and alter their lifestyle in ways they’ve never had to do before.
Despite the ailing economy, many wealthy Philadelphians seem to be frolicking in gardens of plenty. One has only to look through the glossy pages of (the ever annoying) Philadelphia Style magazine to see that there’s a large “upper” class smiling at the recession through their $10,000 dental veneers and champagne toasts. We’re talking Rittenhouse Row Spring festival kickoffs, Viva la Diva Opera Galas, and white tent receptions (bow ties only, please) after the Radnor Hunt Races. If Daddy left you a big trust fund, rest assured that Philadelphia Style will find its way to your door to snap your picture.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we have the new beggar class populating the streets of Center City and elsewhere. Not far from the upscale boutiques and cafes where the “well connected” make plans for a new bow tie benefit, you’re likely to see young men and women sitting curbside with cardboard signs announcing that they’re homeless. “Hello, my name is Michael, I am homeless. I used to have a job.” Or: “Help me! I can’t pay my rent!” Homelessness has now become an “out and not so proud” part of the urban landscape. Ride the Frankford El any day of the week and you’ll see a young or old man announce to passengers that he’s lost his job. Guys who panhandle on subway trains used to be substance abusers or alcoholics but these days many are very young, sober, and well scrubbed.
There are organizations for the homeless, like Philadelphia’s Project H.O.M.E., which in 2005 provided emergency shelter and services for 14,986 people. Project H.O.M.E. also reports that there are 4,000 homeless people on the streets of Philadelphia on any given day. That’s a lot of souls. Poverty, lack of jobs, minimal governmental assistance, affordable health care and substance abuse are the main causes of homelessness.
But just as the economy has created forced vacations and layoffs for Americans who want to work, it is also creating a professional class of homeless who use shelters only in an emergency but who have otherwise turned panhandling into a full time job.
On Aramingo Avenue recently I met a clean cut young guy who said he was trying to get back to Delaware, “Where my folks live.”
His self depreciating humor, his charisma (think super car salesman), his extended apologies for having to ask for money, got my attention. His superb acting talents had transformed charitable giving into an art.
After offering him spare change for his performance, he told me that he spends 8 to 10 hours a day using his “sales” approach all over Fishtown, especially on Girard Avenue, where he makes anywhere from 40 to $50 a day.
“Some people just hand me a ten or more,” he said.
Begging on the street had trained him to read faces. “I know who to approach or who to avoid,” he said. Indeed, even as we walked just six blocks together, I saw him approach five people whom he had almost managed to charm.
You won’t find this “job,” in the Help Wanted section, but it’s there for the taking.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

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