The Legal Beggars of Chicago
If you live in the city, you’re familiar with beggars. Living in the city, I see my fair share of them, but as the summer wears on, the legal beggars are wearing me down.
No, I’m not talking about the Streetwise vendors (Streetwise being Chicago version of the newspaper homeless people sell), I’m talking about the political beggars. The official summer job of outgoing college students seems to be stumping for political donations.
The drill d’jour seems to be the environment, as typified by people in their late teens and early twenties wearing blue t-shirts asking “Do you have a minute for the environment?” I’ve been hearing that question for probably 10 years. The only time it changed was the week I was stopped with “Do you have a minute to help save Lake Michigan?” (Referring to some industrial waste dumping that was in the news at the time.) I can only assume that donations were down that week, because I haven’t heard anything but the original mantra since.
Come to find out, this legal begging is a well-oiled machine. When meeting a friend at a coffee shop a while back, I was told to sit back and watch the operation, as two of them were outside. Sure enough, it was a tag team affair. The young man would only talk to the ladies and the young lady would only try and flag down men. To the extent when the young man was off to the bathroom, the young lady would let other women walk by, even if there wasn’t a man on sidewalk. If there was a man on the sidewalk, she’d swoop in like a bird of prey, with a coy quality to her voice that was a dead giveaway she’d done this before.
My friend informed me that the corner we were on was considered a prime location for them and I must be watching two stars if they were assigned there. Apparently familiar with the group, he further informed me that these kids were paid strictly on commission, so this was their chance to make some money with the affluent residents of the neighborhood and they’d be yanked pretty fast if they didn’t produce.
Now if it were a resident of one of the local crack hotels getting in my face and asking for a buck, I could call a cop. However, if the person asking me for money is part of a coordinated, city-wide effort to ask me for a buck, it seems to be perfectly legal. Is it the (theoretical) bathing on behalf of the beggar in question that makes the environmentalists more legal than the crackhead? When I’m walking by, the only difference I can tell is that there are a whole lot more of political beggars than the traditional ones. If I’m running errands, I could easily get begged 3 times by the same political cause and the political ones tend to be a little more aggressive, in terms of impeding your walking path. Perhaps if I held a sign that said “your group asked me for money 2 blocks ago?”
There are other causes, foreign orphans used to be pretty common, but I haven’t seen them around lately. With an election coming up, I’m sure to see to party and candidate specific-beggars around. Seems to me the Democrats tend to beg on the street more than the Republicans, but I also remember some anti-Clinton causes all over the streets back in the day, so maybe the ruling party just chills out more. Before my much-despised former alderman lost the last election he had goon-looking fellows on the street corners begging for signatures and that was annoying, too, if perhaps a bit more in the tradition of free elections (and since he lost, the election must have been a least moderately free).
At least with these political beggars you know the money you’re giving won’t be going for booze… no, wait. The political beggars all look like college kids, so their cut probably will be going towards booze. It’s just so hard to draw distinctions in this growing field.
Way back in 1891, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about how profitable begging can be in the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” Isn’t it nice to see how politics can take a longstanding form of urban blight and turn it into a legitimate business?