- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006


A scraggy Philip Esposito steps onto an uptown train and begins telling his story: He is HIV-positive, homeless and hungry. He needs a few bucks to get something to eat.

Commuters lining the subway car have heard it all before. They ignore him, many assuming he is lying. But Mr. Esposito, 27, is telling the truth.

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,” Mr. Esposito said. “My honesty.”

It’s all true, said his aunt, Joy Clifford, who lives on Long Island. Mr. Esposito is a recovering heroin addict, and he is infected with the HIV virus.

“It’s a sad story,” she said. “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 are simply pitiful.

Tommy L. Simms, 56, hands commuters copies of a forlorn resume that includes his Social Security number and a facsimile of his driver’s license.

“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 said.

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

Mr. Stoops, who has worked in the field for 30 years and once taught a course on how to be a polite beggar, estimates that 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. Mr. 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 $1.50. Another hands over a $2 lotto ticket.

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

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

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

She gave him a buck. Two stops later, Mr. 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 is a truth teller, too, but not like most. He is not asking for money for himself; he is begging for others.

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

Mr. Mathis said he solicits for the homeless because he was once one of them. He knows any help goes a long way. He said he earns about $100 a day, with many handouts coming from repeat customers.

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