Brother Can You Spare A Dime? Walking The Gauntlet of Downtown Milwaukee Beggars
If you have ever visited downtown Milwaukee, and especially if you have lived (or live) downtown, you have undoubtedly experienced people standing on the streets begging for money.
As someone that has lived a majority of my life in downtown Milwaukee or on the Eastside, I have experienced a whole hosts of begging from the most creative and entertaining methods, to the drab and traditional "Hey lady, ya got a $1 to spare?" The best ones are of course the well thought out ones. Just last week as I was leaving work (I work in the JP Morgan Chase Tower at Water & Wisconsin) I had a guy approach me.
He looked a little rough around the edges, but no more than a lot of the men I see in downtown Milwaukee. He could easily have been a guy just getting off work from a blue collar job in one of the neighboring restaurants or warehouses. Not poor and not rich. He had what appeared to be a warm jacket on, gloves and a hat. As I walked out the door and saw him standing on Water Street, I knew what was coming....this was not my first rodeo.
"Ma'am....Ma'am! I'm not trying to hurt you I swear...I just need to ask you a question." I take a deep breath and roll my eyes. People that beg for money annoy me, I'll explain at the end of this article. I smile meekly and say "Sure, what is it?" As I back up from him, because at this point he is trying to inch in closer to me.
"Like I said, I'm not trying to hurt you or anything. I can show you my ID (he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wallet with a driver's license ID) just so you know I am serious. I just have to ask you a question." Geesh! Look pal you've said that already....trust me I'm not going to allow you to hurt me, so just ask for the money so I can say no, and get home to watch Chris Matthews! - I think to myself. "Okay, please ask me the question Sir." I say in my nicest voice.
"I need to get a train ticket but I am short. All I need is....." I cut him off before he can finish. "Sorry I don't carry cash" See, all that theater for what? That guy needs to streamline his begging.
I have had the woman with the kids approach. That's the one where a woman (or man - I had a guy pull that one last month) stops you and says they just need a little money to catch a bus or get some food. With a sad and pitiful look on her face, pleading for cash because they haven't eaten in days.
Then you have the drunk but hungry approach. This one is self-explanatory. The person is usually reeking of alcohol, slurring their words and claiming that they are in need of food.
There are the "In denial" beggars. They are the ones that feel it is beneath them to beg and make it a point to convey to you they are not begging for money, simply asking for cash in their time of need. I get this one at least 3 times a week. They will stop you and say they don't want a quarter or fifty cents, they need at least $5. Why? You may ask yourself. It doesn't matter, either you are going to give it to them or not....hurry up, you're wasting their time!
The help a veteran out approach. This one is the least of my favorites because I find it unpatriotic. This is the one where a guy will claim to be part of the military but down on his luck. Hasn't eaten in days, doesn't have a place to live, no family, no friends. They will pile on the "woe is me" drama until they see you succumb to it and reach into your pocket. Note to readers: The VA does an excellent job providing for our veteran's needs, people say never say never, but I say NEVER believe a person on the street that says he/she is a veteran and hasn't eaten in days and has no place to live.
Then there are the Loons. These are the men and women that clearly have psychological issues. They usually come with a strong smell of urine or feces, and are the ones stopping everyone that passes them asking for money. They don't pick and choose who they approach. No, for them it's the Bulls-eye method of begging. You know......throw a handful of darts at the board, chances are one is going to hit the bulls-eye. So they beg 100 people with the hope at least 1 will give them something.
The problem with all of this begging on the streets, beyond the fact it is a blight on an already tarnished reputation for downtown Milwaukee - one where far too many people fear downtown and label it as dangerous and something that it is not. The people begging for money probably pull in for their day's work of standing on a street corner, MORE than the average person that stopped and gave them a dollar.
Years ago I worked for a non-profit organization where we dealt with the homeless and needy. And the number one lesson we were taught is to never give in to that emotion of guilt so many of us have when we are confronted by a person on the street that seems to be in need. Milwaukee, just as countless other counties, cities and towns all across America have organizations, charities and churches funded specifically to care for the poor. When someone approaches me on the streets and says they haven't eaten in days, we were taught to carry on us at all times slips of paper with the address to the nearest shelter or food kitchen. I've gotten away from that but I believe I will get back to doing that.
Those that are truly hungry, truly in need, will gladly accept a referral to the nearest food pantry or kitchen. Churches and organizations abound in downtown Milwaukee ready and waiting to provide fresh, clean, warm FREE clothing to those in need. When you walk Wisconsin Avenue and see someone sleeping in a bus shelter or on the streets, please know that it is not necessary. There are places that offer beds, cots and short term housing in the downtown area.
The other aspect of the begging issue that disturbs me is the "boy that cried wolf" component. Because so many people are scamming, the one person that may truly be in need may be overlooked -ignored because we assume they too are nothing more than scammers. I often wonder about that. How many people over the years that have stopped me for cash really needed it in that moment? How many actually had their purse or wallet stolen and really did need money to catch a bus?
Now that Winter is upon us the begging will increase. The cold weather, wind and snow makes those that dare to stand on the street and beg in the elements, all the more pathetic. I see it all the time, people reaching into their pockets and giving money, walking away with a look of pride as if they have done a good deed. Or those that give and walk away with a look of annoyance as if to say "Take this and get out of my way bum!" For myself I think I will go back to the old days of carrying slips of paper in my pocket with social service agencies and local churches listed.
It warms my heart to know that of the many that I am sure will throw it away, there will be that one that will use it and go on to not only have a warm meal, warm bed for a night. They may also get the help they need to be on the other side. One day THEY may be the one walking to or from work with someone asking them for a handout.