There's been an apparent uptick recently in the number of panhandlers working on the BART system, some of them women carrying babies and others men who seem to speak little English, pass out Kleenex packets and notes, and then beg for money to support their families. A post from last October on the Berkeley Parents Network shows a concerned mother wondering what to do after she saw two different women with babies begging, and how it was making her dread using BART. A similar post appeared on Reddit in June, noting the practice of "tissue begging" that has been prevalent in other cities, but not here until now. But now CBS 5/KPIX is reporting that the panhandlers all appear to be part of an organized group who may not be as destitute as they claim, judging by the cars they drive away in. And, interestingly, they're apparently Roma, from the lineage once referred to pejoratively as "gypsies," from Romania.
Two KPIX reporters rode BART for weeks and tried to question some of the panhandlers, the mothers who always appear with babies in tow and signs that say something along the lines of "No job, 4 kids, please help for food." The women were more reticent to speak, but one of the men, finding out that the reporter spoke Italian, was more talkative, and said he rode the trains from 9 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., and lives in Hayward.
Most of the panhandlers appear to come from the same Romani community in Hayward, and KPIX's observations suggest that their claims of poverty may not be entirely true:
It turns out the Kleenex crew isn’t as destitute as their 'help me' notes would make it seem. On several different nights we recognized half a dozen of them loading into a couple of Audis, a Mercedes and a Kia and counting their haul for the day.
As for the mothers, day after day like clockwork we watched them stream out of the Fremont parking lot pushing their strollers. We followed them to a residential development about a mile away, where rents for two-bedroom units list at $2,600 a month.
NBC Bay Area reported on a similar spate of apparently Romani panhandlers showing up at places of worship in affluent East Bay communities like Danville and San Ramon back in 2011, so this is nothing new. But perhaps use of the captive audiences of BART riders is a new tactic.
Crackdowns and tensions in recent years around illegal camping, begging, and thievery in France amid a large influx of Roma immigration have apparently led to further immigration to the US, according to one expert who spoke to the station. (And in France, this calls to mind generations of racism against the group, which was also targeted by Nazis.)
BART, for its part, only considers panhandling illegal when it's "aggressive," and made clear during a recent outcry about the practice getting rampant that panhandling itself is protected by the First Amendment.
Santa Clara County District Attorney's investigator Greg Ovanessian tells KPIX he's had both good and bad reasons for encountering the local Romani population, and he just suggests that BART riders should be skeptical of these panhandlers, and careful about who they give money to, especially larger sums of money.
Everyone who moved here from New York should already know this.