I’ve been homeless on and off for 15 years, and to make money, I panhandle, also known as spanging or stemming. As a young female, this brings with it some unique challenges.
The most disturbing of these challenges is dealing with older men who proposition me for sex. It’s happened so many times, I’ve had to address it on my stem sign as follows: “Just because I’m homeless and female, it doesn’t mean I’ll perform sexual favors for compensation. Please stop asking!”
As I look younger than I am (I’m 39) and often keep my hair short, people sometimes mistake me for a young boy. In addition to the men who assume I must be willing to prostitute myself just because I’m female and homeless, older men in their 70s and 80s, who think I’m a young boy, sometimes offer to let me stay with them. One man told me I could stay with him but said he only had one bed and that we could share it!
I don’t jingle a cup of change. In fact, I don’t use a cup at all because some people will kick the cup or throw their trash in it. I also don’t ask people for money; I don’t say anything at all. I just hold my cardboard sign, and if people want to donate, they can. I don’t want to be a nuisance or pester people. They’re welcome to walk by in peace, or they can donate if the spirit moves them. My sign says “Homeless Vegetarian,” because, although I’m not asking for food, most people would rather give me food because they presume that homeless people would only use money to fund a drug or alcohol habit. I quickly learned that I was going to be given a lot of food, and it was invariably meat. I would then have to redistribute the food to homeless people who do eat meat, and I’d remain hungry.
People also say all sorts of obnoxious things like, “Get a job!” without stopping to consider the challenges homeless people face when seeking employment. You can’t get a job without an address, and you can’t get an address without a job. Also, it’s nearly impossible to apply for work or go for a job interview when you don’t have a place to take a shower or the proper attire to wear.
The same people who say, “Get a job!” will also complain when they see a homeless person with a cell phone or wearing nice clothes. Many times, I’ve heard people saying that they don’t give to homeless people because the last time they did, they saw the same person wearing a suit an hour later. Perhaps the man was going on a job interview. How can people apply for work or schedule an interview if they don’t have a cell phone? And why shouldn’t a homeless person have a cell phone? I have an iPhone 6 because it was given to me as a gift. My mom, who lives in a 50s-and-over seniors community in Florida (which means I can’t move in with her) has been kind enough to pay my phone bill for the last few months. She can’t keep doing it because she lives on a fixed income from Social Security. Furthermore, many homeless people have “the Obama phone,” which is free for people with no income or a low income and provides 250 minutes and 250 texts a month.
Many people want to help the homeless but don’t consider the challenges we face and will give us gigantic bags of food that require a stove to prepare and a refrigerator or freezer to store. Not only can we not cook it, but it’s nearly impossible to carry around with us. I’ve had to give a lot of food away simply because I couldn’t carry it. The same applies to clothing and blankets. Although this can be very helpful if you really need a blanket or winter coat, it can also present difficulties in terms of transportation.
In addition to cash and food, the items most needed are socks (especially in winter), toiletries and, for women, feminine hygiene products. These are essential, very expensive and often overlooked. Also, in the winter, space blankets can be extremely helpful because they’re compact and light-weight so they’re easy to carry. Developed by NASA, some space blankets look like tarps whereas others look like aluminum foil. The silver material reflects 80 percent of the body’s heat back at the percent wearing the blanket. As someone who’s had to sleep outside during the winter, I can attest to their efficacy.
The most helpful thing to give a homeless person is cash. If you’re unsure what to give and don’t have time to stop and have a lengthy conversation about the person’s needs, cash is always best. It will allow people to buy whatever they need and it’s easy to conceal and transport.
Stemming can also be dangerous because there will always be people who threaten you or even assault you. I’ve had my cup kicked (before I stopped using a cup) and have been shoved into a store front and punched. One of my friends had someone throw a full can of Coke at her and hit her in the head! A lot of people throw their trash on you or spill their left-over food and beverages on you, in addition to the litany of rude insults hurled our way. The most asinine thing anyone has ever said to me was, “Homeless vegetarian? If you ate meat, you wouldn’t be homeless.” This man was so irate, but he wasn’t bright enough to think of something quickly, so this is what he yelled.
A common misconception about homeless people is that we must be stupid. When the weather is fine, I like to read while I’m stemming. I read a lot of astrophysics and philosophy books, which confounds people. I’ve had many folks approach me and tell me they’re amazed that I’m homeless if I’m intelligent enough to comprehend Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and the like. Most people seem to assume that homelessness is the result of poor life choices and that it could never happen to them. The reality is that it affects people of any demographic. I’m college educated, and when I’ve been able to afford it—for instance, during times when I’m housed and employed—I’ve taken astrophysics classes at Harvard. Once I secure steady employment and am housed again, I plan to pursue a PhD in astrophysics at Harvard.
Overall, I’ve learned a lot during the time I’ve been stemming. One thing that has always held true is that those who have the least often give the most and those who have the most often don’t give at all.