‘Alt-folk’ at upholstery shop to help Portland panhandlers

The growing number of panhandlers standing in traffic medians around Portland have caught the attention of another historically dispossessed group: socially conscious folk singers.

This Friday, there will be an unprecedented benefit show to raise money for street-corner panhandlers and raise awareness of their plight. It takes place at Pistol Pete’s Upholstery Shop in East Bayside, not far from one of the most common locations for this type of begging: the stretch of Franklin Street (formerly Franklin Arterial) between Whole Foods and the I-295 on-ramp/exit.

It’s an unconventional venue for an unconventional cause featuring unconventional music. The headliner is Snaex, an alt-folk duo comprised of singer-songwriters Chris Teret and Chriss Sutherland. Guitarist Nathan Salsburg, who’s also curator of the historic Alan Lomax Archive, is on the bill, as is “accordion activist” Matt Rock. The cover is $5, and it starts at 8 p.m.

Sutherland, the show’s organizer, was a founding member of the avant-garde rock band Cerberus Shoal and currently plays in the modern flamenco group Olas. His solo albums have garnered high praise from high places (most notably the New York Times), but like most Maine musicians, he’s not far from the bottom of the ladder himself.

In an e-mail promoting the show, Sutherland said proceeds will be “immediately distributed” to the panhandlers but also solicited suggestions as to the best way to get the money in their hands.

Sutherland’s query raises an issue recently debated on the Facebook page of another Portland strummer, Jay Basiner, a.k.a. Jay Biddy, “the Human Jukebox.” Basiner is the hardest-working musician in town. Between frequent solo cover-song gigs and weekly shows with his old-time country and bluegrass band, North of Nashville, Basiner performs hundreds of times a year and has done numerous benefit shows for the Preble Street Resource Center.

Earlier this month, Basiner posted a question to his Facebook friends, who number well over 1,800. Noting the explosion of panhandling over the past year, he asked, “Is this purely because of the economy or is something else in play?”

The discussion that followed highlights the biggest problem these panhandlers both face and cause: the fact it’s practically impossible to determine whether their need is genuine or not.

“I heard that a local news channel interviewed some and learned they average $15/hr,” a poster wrote. “[A]ll with cell phones,” another chimed in. “Some of them look pretty nicely dressed,” observed a third.

“[B]angor is getting disgusting,” yet another of Basiner’s friends posted. “[O]ne guy was asking for money while playing on his laptop. [S]ome girls saw it and got pissed and made signs that said ‘need manicures’ and stood next to him haha.”

I don’t give money to panhandlers in traffic because I don’t know what their situation really is or what they intend to buy with the money, and I won’t be able to find out before the left-turn arrow goes green. If they suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction, my dollar could be doing them more harm than good by enabling the sickness that landed them there in the first place.

Panhandlers who appear to be able-bodied and decently dressed reinforce the perception, warranted or not, that they simply refuse to put in the effort the rest of us do every day to make a living. That perception undermines the good work of organizations like Preble Street that provide food, shelter and services to the needy, screen and evaluate clients (many of whom have substance-abuse and mental-health problems), and rely on public support in the form of donations and tax dollars.

Sutherland told me he’s grappled with these questions, too — he just came to a different conclusion. No one responded to his e-mail with a novel idea of how best to distribute the funds, so after Friday’s show he plans to divvy up the proceeds into six or eight equal amounts and hit the streets on Saturday to hand it out. He estimates it won’t take more than a half hour to find that many panhandlers between Forest Avenue and Franklin.

“We really took the stance that it wasn’t our position to judge those people,” Sutherland said, referring to Teret and himself. “If they’re gonna stand out there for hours on end in the freezing cold for money, then we should give them money.”

“The proper human response from me is to give them money, not to lecture them,” he continued. Homelessness is a complicated problem, and Sutherland acknowledged that “in the one minute I roll down my window and hand them this money, it’s not going to solve that.”

That’s true. I just hope it won’t make the problem worse.

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.