I haven't checked the New York Times index of banished wildly un-PC words and expressions lately, but my belief that "bum" is on the list approaches metaphysical certitude. It's "homeless persons," got it? You'd better. Anyone who insists on the old term is insensitive or, worse, Republican.
Fortunately, normal people rarely submit their vocabularies to the language police for vetting. Liberal friends and acquaintances generally prefer "bums" to "homeless persons" without giving it much mind. Their lack of concern is less a finger aimed at the tsk-tsk set than an acknowledgment of reality. If "bum" is a term of opprobrium, it is a very mild one -- the kind of thing you say about someone who could make something more of himself, or about actual street people.
Maybe it was my wacky public school education, but I've always had a soft spot in my cold black heart for bums. Some see begging as inherently shameful, but I remain baffled as to why. What could be a more human than one person appealing to another's generosity or ego, asking for any help -- any crumb -- that the other is willing to give? Young professionals do the same thing every day, several times a day, and then get indignant when a guy on the sidewalk asks "Buddy, can you spare a buck?"
It's when the requests turn into demands that begging begins to annoy. To wit, New Yorkers were right to cheer when Rudy finally cracked down on the squeegee men, who blocked traffic giving unwanted (and lousy) window washes, and demanded money from pissed off motorists.
On a trip to a college newspaper conference in San Francisco several years back, what surprised was not the sheer number of bums, but their lack of manners. They were rude and foul and acted as though we owed them. A great number of them were crazy or high (or both). My group consisted of three ladies and two gents from a biweekly rag, who took to traveling as a pack. The hulk of an editor brought up the rear; I took point, my eyes scanning all the nooks and doorways for any would be surprises.
The problem has only gotten worse since I last put a flower in my hair. In a Christian Science Monitor article last spring, Mark Sappenfield wrote that San Fran, a city so tolerant that "urinating in public is a cherished right," is trying to figure out to do with its bums. The problem isn't so much the massive expenditure on public health -- $100 million a year in the city and the surrounding area -- as that so many of them are dying -- nearly 200 bums dropped dead in 2000 alone. (There was a slight drop in 2001 and the statistics from 2002 are mired in controversy.) This made only small dent in San Fran's overall homeless population, which Sappenfield pegs near the size of the transient population of New York, in a city one-tenth the size of the Big Apple.
I don't pretend to have the solution to this problem, but the traditional conservative bogeymen seem to be a reasonable explanation of what went wrong. Take one part de-institutionalization of people who are mentally not all there. Throw in large cash payments for anyone with an open-fingered gloved hand outthrust and plenty of check-cashing stores and liquor shops. Add in an electorate so out to lunch that they'll toss politicians who want to limit dependency or lock the crazies up. Stir.
The result is a bitter brew that San Franciscans may be forced to take straight, and soon.
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