Truth tellers on the mean streets of New York

A scraggy Philip Esposito steps on an uptown train and begins telling his story: He’s HIV positive, homeless and hungry. He needs a few dollars to get something to eat.

Commuters lining the subway car have heard it all before. They ignore him, many assuming he’s full of it.

But Esposito (27) isn’t lying.

Among the street hustlers who will say or do anything for a buck, there is a subculture of beggars who use a different approach.

These are the truth tellers.

“It’s the one thing I have left,” Esposito says.
“My honesty.”

It’s all true, says his aunt, Joy Clifford, who lives on Long Island. Phil is a recovering heroin addict, and he is infected with HIV.

“It’s a sad story,” she says.

“It’s a tough world out there.”

Unlike most panhandlers, the truth tellers don’t have gimmicks. They don’t sell pirated movies or stolen candy. They don’t strum old guitars, blow into tarnished saxophones or screech country songs off key.

Their pitch is pithy and on point: They’re simply pitiful. Tommy Simms (56) hands commuters copies of a forlorn resume that includes his Social Security number and a facsimile of his driver’s licence.

“I had an accident when I was younger, I was pushed from a high patio,” the handout reads. “Please help as much as you can.”

“I put in all this effort to make it real,” he says.

Simms, who suffers from epilepsy and blackouts, meanders from station to station, usually pocketing $25 to $30 a day. Some days, he goes home with nothing. Some days the truth doesn’t pay.

Even so, says Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, DC, “Whatever your reason for being homeless, it’s better to tell the truth than fib.”

Stoops, who has worked in the field for 30 years and once taught a course on how to be a polite beggar, estimates half of panhandlers have legitimate stories.

On a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, a bearded Pancho Tiriado (47) mumbles and gestures frantically with his hands. Tiriado is deaf and has trouble speaking.

His long, dirty fingers clutch a frayed piece of paper with some Bible verses and some words he cannot speak: “Can you spare change. Deaf and Homeless.”

On the back is a suggested donation: $1 or 50 cents.

One man gives him a $1.50. Another hands over a $2 lotto ticket.

He is homeless and has been working the trains for a year, he says, the brief interview conducted with pen and paper.

Lenora Desouza, for one, thinks he’s telling the truth, mostly because he really uses sign language, which she can read.

“You can see he really needed help,” she says. “I don’t think he was lying.”

She gave him a buck. Two stops later, Tiriado uttered an incomprehensible string of syllables and disappeared.

Tyrone Kimble Mathis (47) is a former drug addict who slept in the subway 16 years ago.

He’s a truth teller, too, but not like most. He’s not asking for money for himself; he’s begging for others.

In New York, there’s always need. A roving police outreach unit reported more than 4 800 contacts with homeless people (and 877arrests) in 2004, the most recent full-year figures; Mathis, who records his own daily contacts in a notebook, says he made donations to 4 711 people last year.

On a train shuttling between Times Square and Grand Central station, he stands by his shopping cart filled with stuff he has collected for the destitute: fruit, sandwiches, juice, clothes, blankets. His familiar ballad to commuters:

“I’ll be brief. This train ride takes 105 seconds. I was once homeless ... now I care for them. Anybody willing to put a few coins in a cup, that could change somebody’s luck.”

Mathis says he lives in Atlantic City with his wife. He provides a phone number to the Burgundy Motor Inn. Sure enough, the motel attendant recognises Mathis’ name and connects a caller to the room.

Mathis says he solicits for the homeless because he was once one of them. He knows any help goes a long way.

One recent day on the shuttle, the money trickles in at a steady pace, his cup filling up with bills and coins. He says he earns about $100 a day, with many handouts coming from repeat customers.

Much of that goes to the homeless but he uses some for himself—a few dollars for a sandwich, for example. A man’s got to eat, he says.

What Tony Owens lacks in height—he’s about 5-feet-5 (1,64m)—he makes up in braggadocio.

His nickname is “EZ-E” and when he enters a subway car, he immediately asks people for their sympathy.

He pulls something from his tattered bag, revealing a laminated picture of his common-law wife, who he says died in his arms last year after a massive heart attack.

“One week before Easter, my wife dropped dead,” the 47-year-old Owens says.

Owens says they spent 13 years together. A records search confirms the two lived at the same address at the time of her death. Owens has been making a living on the trains for 15 years. The only successful method, he says, is the righteous one.

“I’m not going to stand here and lie,” he says. “You lie and people know you lying. You can’t fool no one.”

He unfurls his latest police ticket for panhandling, pointing out his name and other personal information. The name matches the one he gave minutes earlier: Tony Owens.

“Telling the truth will set you free,” he boasts with a smile.

Before hopping another train at Union Station, an admirer calls out to Owens.

“You tellin’ the truth?” she asks.

“You know it,” he answers. - Sapa-AP

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