Mulvaney: Cutting Aid to the Poor Is Compassionate for Those of Us Who Pay for Them...
I was digging out variegated hosta for Ernesto when he showed up the other day to pick up some bundles and the starters of Persian Shield he so much loved to spark some of the edges of his large garden. I’d happened across a bunch of the Burmese tropical plant, a serrated leaf with iridescent purple splashes of color against a verdant green. Good stuff.
I recommend it for its color, not its recent political history.
Ernesto had just come from south of my home, along Harlem Avenue at about 143rd Street. That’s an especially telling corner these days. In the middle of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, that beautiful collar bequeathed by Daniel Burnham, the intersection has become the place where each corner is occupied by sign-holding panhandlers.
Because it is in the depth of the forest preserve, not the various villages surrounding the place, the only block facing those seeking handouts here will be the occasional Cook County Sheriff vehicle that pulls over and shags them away. Other than that, they’re there each and every day. Each and every hour. And a few moments after the Sheriff squad pulls away.
Ernesto: It is so wrong to see these people begging along the corner out there. Especially the Santy Claus guy with the sign attached to his chest saying he’s homeless.
I totally agree, Ernesto. I’ve known that man for more than a decade, and he has become a sorry product of his situation. He’s an outcome of Cook County jail and our broken system of medical carelessness for one who is suffering mental illness.
Ernesto: Mental illness? He seems fine to me. He should be working instead of begging.
I totally agree again, my friend. But he cannot. He is off his meds and is not likely to find an employer who wants to hear someone talking to himself in Biblical verse for periods of time while he – what? – packs something into boxes? Didn’t you notice he is talking all the time he is roving between the cars for handouts?
Ernesto: I don’t roll down the windows. But I have heard from friends he has a car.
Ernesto: And an apartment. A place to live, so he may say homeless on his coat, but he’s not.
You know, Ernesto, as I work with those who are truly homeless, they – like you – mythologize this man. Indeed, he does look like Santa Clause, and he does work the corners of the street in Harlem. The truly homeless tell exaggerated tales of his climb to greatness and wealth. They imagine he has an annual income of well over $100,000 per year. They covet his new Infinity SUV. In fact, one woman who gave him some money one day saw him in an SUV and began chasing him on Facebook, trying to find out his apartment, etc., and decrying his falsehoods as homeless.
Ernesto: Don’t give me that one please, it’s too big. You should keep it for yourself. But back to Santy. So, you admit, he’s not homeless, my friend. And his car, he parks it in the forest and walks to his corner.
Of course, Ernesto. That’s easy, and in fact, I’m proud of him for it. Despite a state which birthed him out of Cook County’s jail system and offered him no support and cast him from the queue of needy people with mental illness (thank you, Governor Rauner), he survives. He even has a place to stay. He might even have a white, beater SUV. And how? He works in the rain and the snow and the heat and the cold on a corner. He wraps his feet in strips of cloth and walks on the muddy street’s edge and between the traffic to achieve a dollar or even more. Maybe many more.
Ernesto: So you admit this homelessness is a total scam.
Scam? But, Ernesto, my friend, he cannot work. Do you understand? He is incapable of work because he hasn’t the support system for on with a mental illness to do so. He works alone. He panhandles.
Ernesto: But he’s not homeless. He chooses not to work.
Yes, for the moment he’s not. But he’s always on the verge. And he’s up every morning at 5 a.m. to get to the corner so others who are trying to do the same thing and encumbered with the same problems cannot push him out. And believe me, Ernesto, they will. He’s surviving, and he’s working as only he is able. Isn’t that enough?
Ernesto: You know that some of these people actually have whole families out there. They park their cars and send everyone – the kids and wife – to separate corners to get as much money as they can.
I would imagine you’re right, Ernesto. Do you believe that is a scam too? Are all the poor a scam unless they draw a check?
Ernesto: Of course. They could have jobs. If they wanted.
It’s good we have these talks, Ernesto. They open both our eyes.