Panhandling story prompts sympathy from an unexpected place

I knew the cover story in this month’s issue of The Bollard would provoke strong reactions, but I didn’t know what kind of responses to expect. In “Cornered: Portraits of Portland’s traffic panhandlers,” local photojournalist Doug Bruns took pictures of five people begging at busy intersections and conducted brief interviews with them. The piece does a remarkable job humanizing its subjects but also provides fodder for those who resent panhandlers and are bitter that Portland is a destination for destitute people attracted by the relatively generous benefits our community offers (four of the five people in the piece came here from other states).

The response so far has been mixed. A security guard at the public library told me he’s tried to help the man pictured on the cover holding a sign seeking work, but the guy is more interested in beer than employment. A woman I ran into at a punk rock show said her husband, a musician, never gave panhandlers money before but began doing so after reading the story.

Then, last week, I got a call from a teacher at Deering High School. She said her students read the story and were inspired to write letters to the people Bruns profiled. She asked if I could help deliver them, and I agreed. The teacher said I was welcome to read the letters, and, though they are not meant for publication, I could share the students’ sentiments with our readers, provided the underage authors were not identified.

According to our esteemed governor and education commissioner, Deering is one of the worst high schools in the state. (The Department of Education’s new grading system gave Deering a D.) The teacher who contacted me leads a class comprised of the most troubled students in this school that’s supposedly on the verge of failure — young people with learning and behavioral challenges that require special attention. One would not necessarily expect at-risk youth to be a source of charity and goodwill, but their letters blow that preconception away.

There was not a single unkind word in any of the 13 letters the students wrote. To the contrary, every letter contained words of encouragement and sympathy, many offered advice, and most came with a dollar bill attached.

Two letters were addressed to Steven, a 28-year-old from Massachusetts. “Steven, I ain’t gonna lie to you, we are all adults,” one teen wrote. “You must know that nothing gonna happen without pain, sweating, effort and patience. If you respect yourself … I am pretty sure you will find a job that could let you integrate yourself in society.”

Several students were inspired to write to Dana, a 50-year-old from Chicago, because he told Bruns we wants to be a writer. “You should take all the money you get and save it so you can buy paper, books, and pencils,” a student wrote. “[S]ummer is the best time to do all of that. There’s barely any rain in the summer and it’s always sunny and warm so you really don’t have to go anywhere [to write].”

“It’s not too late to be a writer,” wrote another student. “[A]nything is possible if you set your mind and heart to it.” This student knows what it’s like to lose a home. “My mom and I have been kicked out of our house with no where to go so we had to move in with family but not together. She went one place I went another …. As a 16 year old I know the struggles it is for you on a daily [basis] … You have a dream, pursue it and try to make it come true. I believe in you!”

Galen, the man pictured on the cover, also got several letters. “Personally, I hate seeing people on the streets. I couldn’t imagine being one of them,” a female student wrote. “I agree with you that most of the jobs nowadays are for younger people. I’m 18 and I’ve had 4 jobs and get new ones like it’s nothing. You really just have to take the bull by the horns and go into every place you see … Nothing’s ever as bad as it seems and life can always get better.”

After numerous drive-bys to the panhandling hot spots in town, I finally found one of Bruns’ subjects: Galen. I handed him an envelope with his letters and dollars and told him where they came from. Galen looked surprised and grateful. He smiled and thanked me. Then the light turned green, and I drove away.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.