by JOSHUA MCVEIGH-SCHULTZ/Poverty Studies Intern- Mentor; Dee
I had taken Lora out to dinner to celebrate my new job. Later that night we sat in the living room whispering to each other. She was helping me write a “to do” list. Things were changing. We were no longer going to live as a couple in that big house on Court Lane. Her mother had just come back from Shanghai.
Nimen meiyou jiehun! [You two aren’t even married!], her mother had yelled at Lora earlier that night. I sat listening in her brother’s old bedroom, staring at the wall, wishing I didn’t understand the little I did. Downstairs, food lay cold on the table.
We should have called to tell her we’d miss dinner. I shouldn’t have had those beers. I should have said something when we got home.
“But, it’s not your fault; she’s mad at me, not you,” Lora would explain later. “It’s like I’d chosen you over her… my own mother.”
But I wasn’t completely convinced, so I made Lora write a list of things I could work on.
Number one: greet mom LOUDLY when you arrive home. “You’re too quiet; she doesn’t hear you,” Lora explained.
“At the very least say ‘hi’… just a simple acknowledgement.”
I looked at Lora, confused.
“I did say ‘hi’… didn’t I?”
But I had held back. I had tightened my lungs, not wanting Lora’s mom to smell the alcohol on my breath. I had muted the words, not wanting her to judge me, not wanting to be heard speaking English, not wanting to remind myself… of myself. Sometimes, it’s easier to say nothing at all.
“OK, I’ll practice,” I whispered back.
Sometimes… if it’s not said loudly, it hasn’t really been said.
The Nikko hotel shoots up high into the canopy of downtown San Francisco buildings. From their windows, hotel guests can peer down onto the sidewalk. On August 7th, a small group of protestors circled below carrying signs that protested the hotel council’s current ad campaign. I stood among them trying my best to play an unfamiliar part. I was not only a reporter that day but also an advocate. I cleared my throat.
“We don’t need to beg; we don’t need to plead; board of supervisors give the people what they need.” We chanted in unison, but I struggled to keep up, my words sounding tentative and meek. I thought about Lora and tried to sound more resolute. I imagined I was another person: stronger… unabashed… masculine… Chinese. I considered swallowing an old piece of gum that was drying out in my mouth. But I didn’t. The chewing was somehow comforting me.
At one point, a man with a powerful baritone took the loudspeaker. As he spoke, his words built momentum, rising higher and closer to the windows above.
“The hotel council has declared war on panhandlers by spending 65,000 dollars spreading hate messages throughout the city…. We’re here to protest the hotel council for their role in this new war against poor and homeless people.”
The powerful speaker was LS Wilson, coordinator of the Civil Rights Project and the Coalition for Homelessness. He was referring to the 65,000 dollars spent by the San Francisco hotel council to place anti-panhandling messages on signs and billboards throughout the city.
These ads have been getting increasingly critical attention for unfairly vilify panhandlers in San Francisco. Representing Supervisor Gonzales’s office, Jim Norcot argued that the protest should not be misrepresented as a challenge to free speech. “We don’t want to interfere with a person’s right to expression, but the campaign by the hotel council is mean spirited. We have had complaints in Supervisor Gonzales’s office not just from homeless advocates… but [also] from constituents from our district and statewide. They find these ads to be offensive and misleading.”
Despite these complaints, the ads have continued to use the strength of big business to drown out competing, and less well funded, viewpoints.
Far below the windows of the hotel Nikko, our loudspeaker was replaced by a microphone and a small battery powered amplifier. LS Wilson thrust the loudspeaker to me.
“You’re next, right?” he said smiling. I gulped. “What could I possibly say?” I thought to myself. But he was joking. I felt a wave of relief mixed with shame pass over me.
LS Wilson lifted the microphone to his mouth: “We’re here to tell the hotel council and big businesses to stop pointing fingers and start spending some of their money and using some of their power and influence to find solutions to help to end homelessness and poverty.”
“Shame on Nikko. Shame on Nikko,” we chanted together. I was getting louder now. We marched tirelessly in perpetual circles. Many hotel guests passed us, side stepping to avoid contact. Others gathered to watch.
But soon men wearing suits and disconcerted faces appeared at the entrance of the hotel. They were joined by several policemen. The protesters were told to move away from the area of the sidewalk that lay directly under the hotel’s awning. I stepped away from the circle of protesters to eavesdrop on the policemen’s conversation.
“No not you,” someone said to me.
“You can stay.”
“But I’m a protestor too,” I said.
I thought about how I must have looked: a notebook in my hand, a minidisk recorder in my pocket, a lavaliere mic clipped to my collar, that annoying piece of gum still in my mouth.
An officer approached Steven Chester from the Coalition on Homelessness to argue (erroneously) that a microphone without a permit was illegal. The message was clear: while anyone can enjoy the right to free speech, amplified speech is different. It requires special access to power.
The hotel council has wielded this kind of power by spreading their message on signs, vehicles, and billboards throughout the city: a form of spatial and visual amplification—but amplification nonetheless. These signs use ironic imagery to suggest that giving to panhandlers is a naïve and misguided form of charity. One poster depicts two smiling tourists and reads: “Today we rode a cable car, visited Alcatraz, and supported a drug habbit.” In a slightly smaller font below run the words: “Giving to panhandlers doesn’t help, it hurts.”
LS Wilson counters: “We need to come together as people and start addressing real solutions to why people panhandle. We need to understand that all poor and homeless people are not drug addicts and alcoholics. So why are you labeling us that way?” LS Wilson asked. Supervisor Gonzales’s representative seconded this claim arguing that “approximately 25 to 37 percent of all homeless people in San Francisco are families with children… The fact is that these people who are giving money to [panhandlers]… are giving it so [that homeless people] can put food money on the table to feed their families.”
Until now, the hotel council’s loud and angry message about panhandlers has gone virtually unchallenged because the hotel council refuses to engage in dialogue with homeless advocates. LS Wilson maintains that “members of the hotel council have completely ignored requests from homeless advocates and service providers to… talk about their hate messages. Muni and the Cab Commissioner have refused to remove the hate messages and ads from their vehicles.”
LS argues that by scapegoating panhandlers, the hotel council has refused to look at root problems of poverty and homelessness in San Francisco. “Ask yourself one question. Why are homeless people on our streets? What can we do collectively to help people to exit homelessness to help people to find jobs, so they don’t have to panhandle? Some of that $65,000 could have went towards creating jobs in different neighborhoods. If the hotel council really wanted to help, why don’t they support policies that would get homeless people jobs housing and healthcare? If the hotel council really wanted to help people exit homelessness… why would they portray homeless people… in such a negative way?”
These rhetorical questions suggest the unfortunate answer that the hotel council doesn’t really care about poor and homeless people. And so far their negative portrayal of panhandlers has gone unanswered.
With the POOR Magazine poverty scholars i.e., folk who have first-person experience with poverty and homelessness who have been countering the stereotypical notions around panhandling since 1998, When they released The WORK issue of POOR which re-defined panhandling, recycling, mothering and other unrecognized forms of labor as micro-entrepreneurship, or WORK.
And on this day, August 7th , more new voices were heard, speaking truth to power, the very people who’ve experienced poverty and homelessness were portraying their struggle in their own words.
Delphine Brody took the microphone. Her voice wavered at first but picked up confidence as she spoke. The crowd was behind her.
“I’m Delphine and I’ve lived on these streets before. I’ve panhandled before. I’ve been swept off the streets before by hotel security guards it’s not fun. I’ve been kicked out for trying to table score my meals at their bourgeois restaurants… Let me tell you, it’s hard work trying to get any food at all when you don’t have money. And they’re taking away people’s money thanks in a large part to the hotel council. That’s not cool. And then they have the gall… the nerve to fuckin try to take away our right to panhandle… at the same time they’re obviously sponsoring Gavin Newsom’s campaign and his anti-panhandling campaign. Gavin Newsom’s not gonna be mayor… and we are not gonna have an anti panhandling law in this city—over my dead body.”
Delphine smiled broadly as people applauded. I was inspired by the way she had overcome her fears—something I was still struggling with myself. Her initial insecurities on the mic had made her performance all the more powerful. Later, I asked her to elaborate on her feelings about the hotel council.
“They’re the biggest hypocrites in the world. They just had their taxes reduced by the board of supervisors a year ago. Meanwhile they have the nerve to put these signs on buses. They’re putting words in people’s mouths and they’re trying to make it seem like all panhandlers are lying about how they’re gonna spend the money… They’re implying that all panhandlers are abusing hard drugs and that using hard drugs is some kind of sin that only poor people commit and they’re playing on the public’s racism and hatred of homeless people. ‘Cause it’s perfectly fine for a hotel Nikko guest or people who own the hotels who are on the hotel council for that matter to be snorting cocaine in the back rooms of their clubs and parties its not ok for us to be using drugs. To me that’s complete hypocrisy. Last but not least they’re spending their customers money 65000 dollars of it on this ad campaign.” I wished that I had swallowed that dried out wad of blah, but the gum was still there in my mouth.
On the way home I spit it out dramatically.
Before I even took out my key, I could feel the anticipation, the strange sensation of words building deep in my throat—not yet a reality… still merely potential. I took a deep breath.
“Hi, Mrs. Lai. I’m home!!!” I hollered through open door. It was 11:00 o’clock, and Lora’s mother had fallen asleep in front of the TV. At the sound of my booming voice she was startled into a half-waking confusion. For a split second, I imagined how her face might look and caught my breath. I felt like an intruder… invading her space, interrupting the tranquil hum of the TV with my oafish presence. She must be furious, I thought. But instead, the moment flickered and the TV went out—extinguished. Lora’s mother emerged smiling faintly. “Hello,” she said rubbing her eyes. She nodded as she passed me on the way up to her bedroom.
I was so happy.
They were the first words I’d spoken.