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Homelessness and Hungry with No Excuses

Rich Linberg 29 August 2007 One Comment

Each time I walk toward the Loop from the rail station, I’m hit by panhandlers including Larry, saying they’re hungry and homeless.

With the abundance of social services in this city, why are they reduced to begging on the street?

. I submit that the loosening of morals, the break up of the family and the rising tide of divorce after 1960 is the root of the problem. The liberal acceptance of drugs, and the “do it if it feels good” attitude emerging from the “Beat” culture of the 1950s and the hippy generation that followed made the world what it is today. When I see a grainy film clip of 1960s “love-ins,” “be-ins” and images of communal living, I wonder how many of those “Haight-Asbury utopians” who dropped out of society to live in a hippy-dippy drug-haze in 1967 where no rules or regs applied, are today part of the homeless spectacle infesting the big cities of America? This is the price the rest of us must pay for one generation’s imbecility.

The chaos and defiance encountered in our Chicago classrooms foretell what it is to come for the coming generations. Listen to the lament of a young primary-grade and public high school teacher in the heart of the city who cannot control the wild antics of rebellious students. It is struggle to get them to sit in there seats, let alone teach them the rudimentary skills necessary for living. They holler, they curse, they are defiant – sometimes they even threaten the teachers – and I am talking about the children who have bothered to show up! These issues are presented to the parents, but they will likely defend the child’s bad behavior than not and look for ways to blame the teacher. A lawsuit may even follow. I ichard Lindberg

Unlike most homeless men who glare resentfully at you and rattle the paper cup containing a few quarters and nickels, Larry says good morning and good evening. He says it like he means it.

Larry is upbeat each morning, as I trek west from the Metra station to my office, I, and thousands of other commuters in need of an extra hour of Z’s are greeted by the gravelly-voiced tone of “Larry the homeless guy,” begging for change at the foot of the bridge spanning the Chicago River.

I have to believe that in the work-a-day world there must be a company who could use a man like this. He has the energy and the enthusiasm for sales, so why is he pan-handing for change? For that matter, why are the downtown streets infested with so many pan-handlers at a time when the policy makers and politicians of Chicago are asking the question “what homeless?” One cannot stroll 30 feet inside the Loop without being accosted by a disheveled down-and-outer selling “Streetwise” or propping up a sign and looking forlorn – the latest sign strategy aimed at our collective heartstrings bears the message “Just hungry, no excuses.”

If there truly is “no excuse” for homelessness then why can’t these otherwise healthy-appearing young men just stand up and try to figure things out? Try to regain a measure of dignity and self-respect by improving their lot in life. Inevitably the army of homeless men out and about during the morning and evening rush hours appear to be under the age of 40 on average. They do not seem particularly undernourished nor do they seem to show the visible signs of deteriorating health – although the wheel-chair bound are often spotted, and that is regrettable.

Not far from where Larry stands, there is another young man between 30 and 35, by the looks of him. For the past five years, he has positioned himself on both sides of the bridge his head bowed in humble contrition and eyes closed in a look of utter dejection. He mumbles a few words at the passers-by, but is mostly lost in a fog of misery and defeat. Late one morning, it must have been around 10:30 or so, I left my office and walked over to the Walgreens and Randolph and Wells. The rush hour was of course over. I was taken aback by the homeless guy, jauntily crossing the bridge, and laughing and joking in the company of a woman who had obviously come to pick him up. The two of them entered a late model mini-van and drove off.

So that’s the way it is, I thought. Panhandle money for a couple of hours, get picked up and have a good laugh at the expense of the eight-to-fivers, then come back tomorrow to repeat the scam. I am angry and I am cynical. City of Chicago ordinances permit them to “get in your face” and sometimes, harass and intimidate you if you aren’t interested in buying their newspaper (and really now, is Streetwise the kind of publication a more conservative-minded citizen from Arlington Heights or Naperville wants to read?) without fear of the consequences. Ditto for the bicycle messengers who dart along the sidewalk menacing terrified pedestrians, and the cab drivers who impatiently blare their horns at people crossing the streets. But they are another story.

During the noon hour “aggressive panhandlers” enter fast-food restaurants and accost the patrons for change. Neither the manager nor the counter people seemed by elderly white men who had fallen victim to the ravages of the bottle, and who lived in 25-cent flop houses like the old Starr Hotel that once stood on the site of the current Presidential Towers, we did not confront pan-handlers lying on the sidewalks of State Street, or for that matter, see them in the other arterial streets of the Central Loop. In those less than politically correct times, the winos of Madison Street were referred to as “bums” by our parent’s generation or “stew-bums” by the street cops who kept a watchful eye.

I’m not suggesting the insulting terminology should stage a comeback. It has thankfully terribly upset about it. Maybe they fear a nuisance lawsuit being filed by an “activist” attorney if they dared to speak up and drive the person from their place of business. Yes, that must surely be it. The threat of litigation is too great of a risk. The diners meanwhile, instead of standing up for their rights of privacy, are made to feel ashamed. They look the other way – embarrassed because they refused to ante up their change.

I see them shake their heads no, and avoid making eye contact, because our “Culture of Victimology” has taught us to feel really bad about ourselves for the failure of others to take responsibility for their actions and lead a clean, sober, drug-free life. Working hard, saving money, and being good citizens is no longer something we are told we can be proud of, or to be looked up to as a virtue. The bad choices people make in life that contribute to the cycle of homelessness are blamed on Ronald Reagan, or our capitalist society. The homeless have become society’s martyrs, and we the working people, are held to account. It is always someone else’s fault you see, and I have come to believe that the “no excuses” lament is a pathetic mockery of the good folk who struggle and toil for 40 years of their life playing by the rules, because they know in their hearts that there are truly no excuses and the rules of conduct; rules of living, and codes of honor and decency still count for something.

As a Baby Boomer old enough to remember a time when “skid row” applied to a section of West Madison Street populated disappeared from the vernacular. But consider this: back then, it was a powerful connotation of failure and it maybe, just maybe, it might have scared at least some people straight. To be a bum was an admission that a person had tumbled to the lowest rung of the social ladder. No-one wanted to be thought of as a bum. Today there are no bums, no irresponsible people, no criminals, no bust-outs or burn-outs – they’re all just pitiful victims with a sense of entitlement and empowerment.

The “bums” as they were once known, were not viewed as tragic martyrs of a society gone awry – mostly it was their penchant for the gin spirits that did them in, nothing more. Nor did they shout out any of the “isms” we here today as an excuse to justify their afflictions and reduced economic status. They did not blame the government, the system, the politicians or you and I. They were what they were – and they were just there. And, for the most part, they left the rest of us alone.

Imagine such a thing as that happening in a public school setting 40 or 50 years ago, when, if you did not raise your hand for permission to speak or go to the bathroom you were sent to the principal’s office. Children feared the consequences of what dad might do to us when he got home from work. Classroom insubordination was not tolerated.

But in today’s permissive world, such disciplinary tactics are seen by the liberal establishment as authoritarian and severe. By their logic, it is the fault of the Board of Ed, the teachers, the government for not extorting enough taxes from the rest of us; anything but where the real root of the problem lies, and that is the home environment. Young teachers coming out of college are full of idealism and hope for the world; but a year or two in a Chicago classroom grinds them to a pulp. Many of them will end up in private sector jobs after suffering two years of this kind of ruckus.

I submit that the root of homelessness starts in the primary grades, with a fundamental lack of respect for authority and the institutionalized social defiance. If the disheveled men of the street who tell us they have “no excuses” (but demand our money anyway), were properly motivated and paid more attention to the teacher, stayed in school and worked to achieve something more than peer admiration for moronic juvenile behavior, they wouldn’t be here.

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Rich Lindberg, an expert on (among other things) Chicago history, is the author of several books on the history of organized crime in Chicago.

One Comment »

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    I used to constantly see a beggar in the Loop who call to passersby to make a donation and receive a tiny American flag on a toothpick in return. This character would twist and shake as if he suffered from spasms at random moments. On another occasion, I encountered the same man wearing sunglasses and a jogging jacket. His spasms seemed to have been completely cured. He was in a stationery store buying rolls of paper tape for use in his adding machine. He needed to tally up the loose coins and currency that he received in order to make out his bank deposit slips accurately. Begging was this man’s occupation. In all likelihood, his takings from the suckers were largely tax free. On another occasion, I happened upon this same character traveling upon a train. He seemed displeased that I may have recognized him despite his efforts to travel in cognito. This put me in mind of the Sherlock Holmes tale which featured “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” A jobless man takes to costuming himself and becoming a professional beggar. He soon finds that he is clearing more cash by appealing to pedestrians than he did in his former position of employment! With his the fruits of his beggary, he is able to maintain a suburban home for his family until Holmes penetrates his con game. While I pity some persons who suffer from genuine hardship and misfortune, I suspect that many of the professional beggars are fakers. Rudy Giuliani managed to remove the panhandlers from the streets of New York. Why is that Richard M. Daley cannot do the same? With the exception of the week of the 1996 Democratic Convention, I have never seen the police make an effort to curb the activities of panhandlers on the streets of Chicago. It is high time that they start to do so.

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