When the Homeless Use Humor to Fill Their Empty Cups

He stands on a corner near Union Square, one of many homeless men - and a few women - appealing for money on a summer weekend. But instead of printing a generic "Homeless and hungry" request on cardboard, he lightens his plea with humor, calling out, "Spare some change for the residentially challenged?"

A block away, another needy man rattles coins in his paper cup and holds a sign bearing a joking message: "My wife's been kidnapped. I'm short 98 for ransom."

Nearby, a third man also tries for laughs by waving a colorful whale hand puppet - and a cup - at pedestrians.

Humor is not typically the stock-in-trade of the dispossessed. But like merchants seeking to attract customers with advertising jingles, these desperate citizens of the street hope their ploys will capture the attention - and money - of shoppers, tourists, and convention-goers.

Summer is the season when the homeless become nearly invisible in many American cities. But here in San Francisco, where they number between 12,000 and 17,000, their conspicuous presence serves as an uncomfortable reminder of two vastly different Americas. Despite a decade of prosperity, the rising tide has clearly not lifted all boats.

Just ask Charlene Tschirhart, director of donor services for St. Anthony Foundation here. On a single day last month, her organization served hot meals to 3,000 people. "The Dow Jones looks so good," she says. "But in the same year that we had such an economic boom, Congress cut food stamps. Isn't that an incredible statement of our values?" She adds, "There's more discouragement and more despair among the poor, and more a feeling of alienation that the community out there just doesn't get it."

In the past two years, 4,000 units of public housing have been demolished here, the Coalition on Homelessness reports. During the same period, 1,700 residents have lost disability benefits under the Contract With America. And rents have skyrocketed, with vacancy rates under 1 percent for even the cheapest single-room-occupancy hotels. Problems like these exist in many cities, of course.

Fourteen percent of Americans, Ms. Tschirhart notes, live below the poverty level - $16,700 a year for a family of four. "I'm always amazed that we don't see more people on the streets," she says.

To Americans with compassion fatigue, she says, "If you're tired of looking at the poor, imagine how incredibly difficult it is to be the person who is poor, trying to figure out how to get the next meal, get housing and health care, and deal with loneliness. Poverty is so alienating."

Still, for pedestrians walking a gantlet of outstretched hands, sidewalk appeals raise difficult questions: To give or not to give? If so, how much, and to whom? Not all donations go for food or rent, as one unkempt man on Powell Street admits. His sign reads: "Why lie? Need a beer."

Financing addiction is not what most donors have in mind. It will take more than quarters and dollar bills stuffed into Styrofoam cups to clear sidewalks and shelters. As Tschirhart puts it, "We need to address this not just for the poor but for society. We don't want to continue this way." Addressing the problem of homelessness will require a sustained national debate on housing policies, livable wages, and affordable health care. It will mean not just looking up approvingly at a sky-high stock market but also looking down compassionately at the ragged survivors on the street, including those who mask despair with humor as they try to stay afloat for yet another day.

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