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Dissecting the news media's claim of anti-panhandling 'clamor'
“Aggressive panhandling” made Page One of the San Francisco Chronicle again recently. But the report, like so many others before it in newspapers, magazines, TV and websites, left readers with more questions than answers about whether the trend indicated by the paper really existed.
In a story occupying more than one-third of the front page earlier this month, “Clamor for change is growing” (Web headline: “Aggressive S.F. panhandlers, tourist complaints up”), the Chronicle reported an increase in complaints from tourists and the local hospitality industry at the presence of panhandlers who won’t take no for an answer. While it quoted hoteliers and travelers opining on the city’s homelessness problem, some vital information was missing from the story:
- When they say aggressive panhandling, what activities precisely are they complaining about?
- How do they know the panhandling problem is growing — are there any statistics?
- If there is more desperate poverty on the street, what are the causes?
The story was short on the kinds of details local government, social service organizations and neighborhood groups need to assess the scope and nature of people living in poverty on San Francisco’s streets.
Asked whether the story answered the relevant questions about whether a trend existed, Chronicle writer Heather Knight said: “Everything you asked is in our original story. I think you’d get a great story by talking directly to tourists, hotel owners, business owners, etc., instead of trying to re-interpret our story.”
What is ‘aggressive’?
One question is how city law defines “aggressive panhandling.” According to the San Francisco police code, panhandling is specifically prohibited in any public place, roadway and public transportation vehicle or within 20 feet of an ATM. However, “aggressiveness” appears to have a broad definition. That could include any behavior that causes a person to fear for his or her physical safety. But it could also apply to any repeated requests after the panhandlee says no.
Is it really a trend?
A front-page report on a social trend in a major metro newspaper typically cites statistics backing up the claim or providing caveats. The only statistic cited in the story, however, was a mention of tourism having increased 40 percent since last year. If that’s the case, then it’s the complainers — represented by members of the San Francisco Travel Association, formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau — who are increasing, not necessarily the panhandlers.
How many cases of aggressive panhandling move through the legal system? Since the Tenderloin-based Community Justice Center started operating in March 2009, it processed 30 citations specific to aggressive panhandling, mostly combined with other charges, such as “illegal lodging,” or sleeping on the street.
But the complaint-driven process results in few prosecutions. “The most difficult thing is having no civilian witnesses,” center coordinator Tomiquia Moss said.
From such low numbers, it’s hard to derive a trend, which is something newspapers typically acknowledge when citing strong opinions about trends. The story cited Tim Falvey of the Union Square Business Improvement District saying there had been “a marked increase in people’s observations of people panhandling, sitting and lying on the street, acting strangely, public urination and public defecation — the whole litany of behaviors that has become really problematic.”
While the Chronicle focused on inconvenienced out-of-towners in their interactions with homeless locals, the story was short on explanations of factors that might lead to panhandling or homelessness, especially economic.
There are some statistics on that. The 2010 U.S. census estimates that 15.1 percent of the population — or one in six people — live in poverty, the highest rate in 18 years. The rate and number of people defined as living “in deep poverty” — below half of the poverty level — hit a record high.
The current economic climate makes getting by difficult for this subset, anti-poverty activists say. “The cost of living is going up, but general assistance hasn’t gone up in years,” said Gary Lewis, executive director of the General Assistance Advocacy Project. “All are feeling the pinch.”
And the city’s policy has taken cash out of the pockets of many of the homeless. The maximum monthly allowance San Franciscans can get in general assistance welfare benefits is $422. But those enrolled in the Care Not Cash program are left with $59 if they are offered a hotel room with supportive services or a bed in a homeless shelter.
This might be an indicator that over the decade, panhandling could be an increasing way to supplement low income.
But the city’s Human Services Agency surveyed over 1,000 people in the shelter system earlier this year. Almost 80 percent of respondents asked if they had to ask people for money or spare change replied “no.” Just how much would the average panhandler rake in? Out of the remainder, a little more than half said they take in less than $50 per month.
In recent years of budget trimming, the city’s indigents have lost drop-in programs and social service facilities such as the McMillan Drop-in Center, the 150 Otis St. resource center, Caduceus Outreach Services and Buster’s Place.
Homeless policy director Dariush Kayhan, was quick to point out that panhandling and homelessness are very different phenomena — many homeless people have never begged, and many beggars have homes. Kayhan told the Chronicle that “75 percent of aggressive panhandlers are housed,” though he declined to comment further.
Lewis said the Chronicle story left him with a one-sided feeling: “They didn’t really further any understanding. We see this kind of reporting all the time, with symptoms but not causes, using anecdotes to support a position.”
Dhyana Levey and C. Nellie Nelson contributed to this report.
About the Author
T.J. Johnston is a San Francisco-based journalist. He has been published in Newsdesk.org; Street Sheet; Street Spirit; Poor Magazine; Race, Poverty & the Environment; and Now Public, among other publications and Web sites.