“Please don’t feed our bums”
“Give me some money and I’ll feed myself.”
Controversial bumper stickers target new more aggressive type of transients
By John Wilkens, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Friday, June 18, 2010 at 9:59 p.m.
A sticker at the South Coast Longboards surf shop in Ocean Beach urges people not to feed the homeless. Aimed to thwart what some call aggressive panhandling, the stickers have sparked controversy.
Ocean Beach has always had a thing for bumper stickers. “Coexist” is a popular one. “Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Mind” is another. And there’s this classic in counterculture bravado: “U.S. Out of O.B.”
Now, a new sticker is raising eyebrows and tempers along the community’s main commercial drag, Newport Avenue, causing some to wonder what’s happening to the scruffy town’s legendary “live and let live” vibe.
“Welcome to Ocean Beach,” the sticker reads. “Please Don’t Feed Our Bums.”
A homeless controversy in O.B.? Yes, and it started, of all places, in a head shop.
That would be The Black, which has been around for 40 years and sells much more than “tobacco” paraphernalia these days. Ken Anderson, an employee there, got together with a friend a few weeks ago and came up with the idea for the stickers, which he had printed and now sells in the store.
Anderson said he’s fed up with what he characterizes as a new strain of transient — young, able-bodied, rude and aggressive. These are panhandlers, he said, who travel in groups with pit bulls and knives on their belts and don’t ask for spare change so much as demand it.
“They have no respect for O.B. or for the people who live here,” said Anderson, 42, a 19-year resident.
He talked of friends who have been held up by machete-wielding street people, of merchants whose awning-covered doorways have been turned into trash cans and toilets. He said transients call him “a sellout” for having a job.
“The homeless guys who have been here a long time know us and we know them and they do their best not to bother people,” Anderson said. “These young kids aren’t like that. They don’t want to work. They just want to coast.”
Transients known as “travelers” move from city to city in groups, and for them homelessness is more of a lifestyle than a circumstance, said David Surwilo, the San Diego Police Department’s community relations officer in Ocean Beach. Some have credit cards and cell phones, he said.
“People in Ocean Beach are getting frustrated,” he said. “The sticker is their way of saying, ‘Let’s stop these people from parasiting off the community.’ ”
Anderson calls the $2.50 sticker a spoof, “our version of the cardboard sign some of the homeless like to hold up on street corners when they beg for money.” It has a silhouette in the center of a hobo walking a dog and is patterned after a sign in Mammoth Lakes that asks residents not to feed bears.
“It’s not politically correct,” Anderson said. “I knew some people might get upset about it.”
One of those people is Frank Gormlie, a community activist and journalist who runs the “OB Rag” blog. To him, the stickers are a disappointing continuation of “an underground campaign” against the homeless that began months ago.
“I just think they send the wrong message and put the lie to Ocean Beach’s reputation as a place of laid-back tolerance,” he said. “The stickers carry a message of hate.”
Gormlie asked Anderson to stop selling the stickers. Instead, Anderson got more printed. He also has diversified — selling “Please Don’t Feed Our Bums” hats and T-shirts for $16 each.
Through his blog, Gormlie is encouraging a boycott of The Black. He’s offering an “OB Rag” T-shirt to the person who removes the most don’t-feed-bums stickers from public signs around town and sends him the pieces. He’s talking about circulating an anti-sticker petition.
“I grew up in O.B,” said Gormlie, 62, who doesn’t live there now but has spent 30 of the past 40 years as a resident. “Merchants have always complained about the young homeless. This attempt to dehumanize them is wrong and doesn’t solve anything.”
Reaction from other businesses along Newport Avenue is divided.
At South Coast Longboards, where the sticker is displayed in the front window, employee Mike Sanders said he agrees with Anderson.
“I don’t give the kids money because they just use it to get loaded,” he said. “I encourage other people not to give, too. It just contributes to the problem.”
Across the street at the Newport Farms liquor store, manager Sal Sinawi has one of the stickers but doesn’t plan to display it. The young transients are aggressive, he said, and they’ll cuss you out if you don’t give them money. “But they’re still human. It’s OK to feed dogs but not humans? You can’t just ignore them.”
Ignoring the homeless is hard, especially when they gather in large numbers along the wall at the foot of Newport. On a recent weekday morning, one of them was shown the sticker.
“Please don’t feed our bums,” he read out loud. He chuckled. “Give me some money and I’ll feed myself.”
John Wilkens: (619) 293-2236; firstname.lastname@example.org