David is an affable guy. He says he gets that from his father, who could talk to anyone about anything.
These days, David — who wouldn’t share his last name — spends a lot of his time outside South Station, asking strangers if they’ll help him buy some food. He’s been homeless for a few weeks, though he’s hopeful it won’t last.
It’s a story that begins like many others. David and his high school sweetheart reconnected on Facebook, before hidden debts and painful jealousies turned romance to tragedy. When David left for good, he wasn’t able to take much with him.
Somehow, shut out from his old life, David seems to have retained his optimism. On a good day, he says he walks away with $40 or $45, enough for meals and much-needed clothes. He’s grateful for the kindness of strangers and the fact that there are shelters for cold nights — though he’s bitter about government waste in the face of such obvious need.
And while it’s not a home, David does say there’s a sense of camaraderie among panhandlers, like the time he took a homeless friend out to Revere Beach to get a much-needed shower — and how they laughed about the fact that no one on the subway could stand the smell.
He remembers being on the other side of things, too. His ex-wife in California, he tells me, was a “benevolent person,” and together they “would buy food for homeless people. . . the majority of them were street drunks or addicts, but it doesn’t matter, they still have to eat.”
Several blocks up Summer Street, however, Betsy is less hopeful, more frightened — and equally insistent that her last name remain unmentioned. She was evicted from her apartment last month, and she adds that she fractured her leg in a recent fall and can barely walk.
“I’m really scared,” says Betsy. “I don’t know what to do or where to go. I don’t know what direction.”
She’s sitting on the sidewalk beside a cardboard sign while her boyfriend also panhandles nearby — in a prime spot outside the McDonald’s on Washington Street.
They don’t usually stay for more than a few hours, once they have the $40 to $60 they need for food and the occasional hotel room. It’s boring, she says, and people are very rude. “They just tell you to get a job, get a life. . . I can’t get a job if I don’t have an address. You can’t do anything if you have no clothing, if you can’t shower everyday.”
Betsy says she has been struggling with drug addiction since 2010, along with physical abuse and harassment.
Through her eyes, the panhandling world looks very different than it does to David. It’s harder and harsher, a place where “everybody is out for their own.”
But the two do share at least this much: a firm belief that people beg because they must, not out of laziness but because they can’t see any other options in that moment. From their perspective, the stigma against panhandling just doesn’t make sense.
“We’re not bad people,” Betsy insisted. “We just struggle. We’ve just had a bad life. Bad luck.”Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz