Panhandling and the Zero-sum Game

By J de Salvo

Food or drugs? Yes, you. I’m talking to you. Well, which is it? Food or drugs? What? You need to do laundry? You want a cup of coffee? I’m sorry. Your choice is simple: food or drugs.

That would get annoying after a while, wouldn’t it? Suppose you weren’t hungry, or you didn’t do drugs. Suppose there was something you really needed to get done in order to move forward with your life, but people kept insisting that all you must or could possibly want is food or drugs.

That’s how it is, panhandling  today. Propaganda such as the new BART placards and other misinformation has been very effective in planting this idea in people’s heads: if they don’t want food, they must want the money for drugs or alcohol. When I’m out selling Street Sheets, I usually set a certain amount of time aside for myself to stay out and vend; the idea being that this way I always have a little cash in my pocket, and I’m never too desperate. At times, though, hours will go by when the only donations I receive are food donations.

Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate food donations. They have kept me from going hungry many times. However, when there’s an important appointment that I need BART or bus fare to get to—for my SSI or food stamp cases, therapy, or to see my psychiatrist to get my prescription renewed for my psych meds, or when I just want to get a cup of coffee somewhere so I can charge my phone and work on my writing, they can be anything but helpful. I can only eat so much; and once I’m full, if I accept more food donations, they just sit there in plain view where everyone passing by can see them and think: he’s got food. What does he need money for? Probably drugs.

I’m not so naïve as to think that there aren’t people who panhandle mainly for drugs, but I promise you that even they also need money for other things. Again, imagine a life comprised only of food and drugs. You’d subsist, sure, but it would sure be mundane and lacking in substance. There’s also a certain dignity in choosing your own meals that those who have never felt its absence tend to take for granted. If someone looks desperate, they may very well be desperate for drugs, but they may also have mental problems, or just be extremely frustrated at the cruelty of this zero-sum game that presupposes that they—along with all other unhoused people—only require two things in life.

If you see someone panhandling or selling Street Sheets, try talking to them about their life. It will most likely become clear what they’re about. Most people, especially folks in as vulnerable a situation as the unhoused, are not master liars and manipulators. Try having a real interaction with someone before you decide you know all about them. Or if you don’t have time for that but still want to help, try going in the other direction: assume there is probably more to their lives than merely food and/or drugs.

I’ve noticed that when I’m vending, on the rare occasions that I refuse food donations—the third pastry of the day, a Little Debbie Moon Pie, cold onion rings, basically anything that is either stale or has no nutritional value, in which case it feels more like the person is just trying to get rid of something they no longer want and are tired of carrying, so they use me as a human disposal system—the would-be donor almost always acts shocked and offended. From the expression on their face—or sometimes by their verbal taunts—I can see what they assume: “He doesn’t want this food, how ungrateful; he must be a junkie or a crackhead.”

This kind of zero-sum thinking is not only shallow and judgmental, it is cruel. If so-called “woke” San Francisco is really going to try not to make assumptions about people based on their appearance and/or background, it would be nice if unhoused people could be allowed our chance to transcend such stereotypes as well.