Oct. 2, 2020

Finding Stephanie

Finding Stephanie

One woman searches for a serial panhandler and the answer to what to do when someone asks you for money.

Story produced by Tasha A. F. Lemley, edited by Tony Gonzalez, sound designed and mixed by Jakob Lewis.

You can join “The Neighborhood” along with these wonderful, thoughtful, generous people by becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/neighbors

Who’s in “The Neighborhood”: Allison Sebastian, Adrian Cobb, Nathalie Stewart, Ben Lehman, Caroline Martin, Clark Buckner, Cody Spriggs, Dan Burns, Em Vo, Eric Detweiler, Gina, Griffin Bonham, Heather Price, John Kesling, Landon Rives, Marc Kochamba, Patrick Black, Patrick Gillis, Ray Ware, Ryan Arnett, Samuel Adams, Tom and Rachel Kraft, Nikki Black, Hunter and Bonnie Moore, Newton Dominey, Bea Troxel, Craig and Brenda Burns, Laurel Dean, Travis Hall, Clark Hill, Tony Gonzalez, Christopher Mastin and my mom Tonya Lewis (thanks mom!)

Visit our website at www.neighborspodcast.com

Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts because writing one on the bathroom stall of a Waffle House would be less helpful, though more intriguing.

Music from the Blue Dot Sessions, Dan Burns and Podington Bear.

Our sonic logo at the beginning of the episode is by Dallas Taylor’s company Defacto Sound. Dallas makes a podcast about sound called Twenty Thousand Hertz listen at www.20k.org

One woman searches for a serial panhandler and the answer to what to do when someone asks you for money.

Story produced by Tasha A. F. Lemley, edited by Tony Gonzalez, sound designed and mixed by Jakob Lewis.

You can join “The Neighborhood” along with these wonderful, thoughtful, generous people by becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/neighbors

Who’s in “The Neighborhood”: Allison Sebastian, Adrian Cobb, Nathalie Stewart, Ben Lehman, Caroline Martin, Clark Buckner, Cody Spriggs, Dan Burns, Em Vo, Eric Detweiler, Gina, Griffin Bonham, Heather Price, John Kesling, Landon Rives, Marc Kochamba, Patrick Black, Patrick Gillis, Ray Ware, Ryan Arnett, Samuel Adams, Tom and Rachel Kraft, Nikki Black, Hunter and Bonnie Moore, Newton Dominey, Bea Troxel, Craig and Brenda Burns, Laurel Dean, Travis Hall, Clark Hill, Tony Gonzalez, Christopher Mastin and my mom Tonya Lewis (thanks mom!)

Visit our website at www.neighborspodcast.com

Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts because writing one on the bathroom stall of a Waffle House would be less helpful, though more intriguing.

Music from the Blue Dot Sessions, Dan Burns and Podington Bear.

Our sonic logo at the beginning of the episode is by Dallas Taylor’s company Defacto Sound. Dallas makes a podcast about sound called Twenty Thousand Hertz listen at www.20k.org



Jakob: [00:00:00] Hey, I'm Jacob Lewis and you are listening to Neighbors, a show about what connects us. Cariad is going to be out for a while working on other projects — mostly with me in fact — but hopefully one day she'll be back. In the meantime, you got me. You're about to hear a story from a producer named Tasha Lemley.

She used to make stories for Neighbors when the show first started all the way back in 2014. And the interesting thing about Tasha is that she was one of the founders of The Contributor. It's a street newspaper in Nashville where men and women experiencing homelessness can sell it in a kind of regulated and monitored way to earn income.

You'll see folks all over the city peddling these things. But Tasha brings us a story that a lot of people can relate to when they see someone with one of these. It's about that moment. The moment when it happens, someone on the side of the road in a parking lot, at a gas station, starts to walk toward you and asks for money.

How do you respond? What goes through your head? Today's story is all about the question of how we respond. What our thoughts and ideas about our role in the asker's life reveal about our hearts. Here's Tasha with her story called Finding Stephanie.

Tasha: [00:01:21] There's a lot of feelings I go through when someone asks me for money on the street. Sometimes I feel self righteous and generous. Sometimes I feel self righteous and indignant. And other times, I’m just tired and I'm sad and I look away. Most of the time, though, these days, I just try to smile. And I wave.

Ok, so, lately we have more than one neighbor who actually comes straight to our door to ask for money. One of them is Juanita. She’s a really tiny, very quiet, woman. And she's in a power wheelchair.

I hold my breath as her scooter wobbles over our lumpy yard. A lot of the time she just then stares and vacantly smiles. Last week, she followed my car from 2 blocks away to see if she could "borrow a dollar".

This is challenging. I want to help and don’t know how. I want to have something of a genuine neighborly relationship with her. I’m also irritated and I don’t want to be a regular stop on her day.

The question of what to do with when people ask for money is something I’ve struggled with for a long time...and I’m not alone. It's been on Jeff's mind as well.

Jeff: [00:02:33] Oh yeah. I drove limos for, for a while. Had some pretty interesting clients. Well, I mean, I drove for Linda Carter for Joe Walsh for, um, Robert Plant. Uh, drove Ted Nugent once. He's cool...

Tasha: [00:02:43] Jeff’s a fascinating neighbor to have. He’s also my mechanic. But he's so much more than that. He’s former military. A patriotic, open-carry, family-loving man who jumps out of planes on the weekends for fun and a little bit of income.

And he’s a pleasant-looking guy. If you met him, you might remember his hair. It’s solid grey, it feathers down over his ears. And it’s got body.

As a mechanic, Jeff fixes things. It's what he does. If he thinks it can be repaired he'll give it a shot. Even to the point of running for mayor of Nashville in 2018.

Fox17: [00:03:18] [Newscasters]...Nashville mayoral candidates. Up next is Jeff Napier. He's a mechanic and limo driver from Goodlettsville who describes himself as regular Joe. And Jeff, thank you so much for coming here to talk with us today and tell us, first of all, um, a thing that sets you apart from the other candidates. It's a question we ask. Dr. Swain. It's something I wanted to ask you as well.

[Jeff] Well, I'm a, just like, like I said, on the description, I'm just a regular Joe. I'm a regular person, you know, I work a regular job. Um, I, um, you know, a mechanic for 37 years driving limos and, um, I just, you know, I kinda know what the regular person needs.

Tasha: [00:03:54] Jeff can be sassy, but he’s also really kind. And he cares about his neighbors. It was exactly that...caring for a neighbor when Jeff...well...he got scammed. One day he saw someone broken down on the side of the interstate.

Jeff: [00:04:08] And his hood was up and stuff. And I just was having a good day when I was in a good mood. It's not, I'm not a moody person, but I just happened to be in the mood of, you know, maybe helping somebody if they need it.

So him not realizing I'm a 30, you know, well, at the time, 36-year mechanic at the time, he pulls me over, says his car's broke down and he needed $40 to get to, uh, to get a part or whatever, to fix, you know, his car and get it back to Knoxville.

And I'm like, well, what, what part is it? Well, he tried telling me he needed an oxygen sensor…

So, and I'm thinking, well, something don’t add up here, because he don't need an oxygen sensor to get to Knoxville. It will run just fine. So I noticed he left his keys in the car.

"Okay, well, let's, uh, let's look at it real quick.” I reached in and start the car up. And then he got mad, furious, started cussing me and stuff. And I'm like, “dude, what do you need…” you know, “why do you need $40? You know, you know, oxygen sensors  cost more $40. I ain't stupid.”

You know, I'm like, you know, I told him then I was a 36 year mechanic. Well, then he got even madder and started, you know, cussing at me, you know, all that. Worse. So I hopped in the car and started to leave. He runs up, kicks the bumper. He's very hostile, very, you know, mean.

Tasha: [00:05:17] So Jeff was pissed. And it turns out he wasn’t the first person that this man had conned. The guy he saw stranded on the side of the interstate was Paul Aniel. He’s been arrested over 100 times.

WKRN: [00:05:27] [Newscaster] He's well known in Nashville. The name Paul Aniel resonates  with police and people who spot him on the road.

[Witness] I saw a man waving his arms, like something was really wrong. So I was really concerned.

[Newscaster] Charity's encounter on Briley Parkway.

[Witness] He just hopped in my car and closed the door. He said, he told me, he needed $40...

Tasha: [00:05:47] Jeff felt taken advantage of and he didn’t want this to happen to anyone else if he could help it.

I know this feeling. Like, when I hear about phone scams on elderly people, for at least 5 minutes I want to dedicate my life to shutting that stuff down.

So, Jeff, always ready to fix things, he took action. And so he started a Facebook group.

Jeff: [00:06:06] The Official Guide to Locating Nashville's...I screwed it up. I'm glad you...I'm glad you got edits. The Nat...I hate it. The Official Guide to Locating Nashville Aggressive Scammers.

Tasha: [00:06:25] They started by posting about Paul and where he was perched each day. And over about a year, Jeff’s group grew to more than 18,000 members. They started posting about other scammers in the area. The most popular one by far has been Stephanie Alley.

Stephanie Video: [00:06:40] Sir, can I ask a quick question?

[Man #1] Sure.

My children and I are staying at a hotel until we can get in the YWCA domestic shelter tomorrow morning. For us to be able to stay tonight, I need help with $33. Could you help with any of that?

[Man #2] I don't know, I speak to really. I do not speak too much English

Can you help with 26 dinero for a hotel mi familia?

Tasha: [00:07:10] Stephanie is an attractive, well-dressed, tired-looking woman in her early 40s. Her pitch is that she needs a somewhat random amount of money for a hotel room that night.

Jeff’s group is obsessed with Stephanie. There are dozens of videos of her in parking lots, restaurants, and hardware stores. And in most of them, the person videoing quickly intercepts Stephanie mid-pitch and alerts her mark that they’re being scammed.

Video Collage: [00:07:35] [#1] Don't do it. She's a scammer.

[#2] Hey, they're...managers are coming for you.

For what, asking for directions?

You're not asking for directions. You're asking for money.

[#3] Stephanie, can't be here. You gotta go.

[#4] See ya later, Stephanie. Everybody will be looking for ya next time.

[#5] You're a scam artist. Everybody knows you.

[#6] Not this time, Stephanie, I know you. I know you, Stephanie. It's the 3rd time you got me.

[#7] Where the hell is she at? I know she's over here somewhere.

[#8] Stephanie, Stephanie. Uh uh. Out of here. Out of here.

[#9] You're a liar!

[#10] Mr., this is Stephanie Alley. She's a scammer.

[#11] Guess who's on the move, y'all!

[#12] Stephanie, why are you lying to these people? You are not poor and you do not have an abusive relationship. You're not poor! You have a Honda Civic! Stop lying to these people. Y'all join the Facebook group to find Stephanie. I found Stephanie!

Tasha: [00:08:44] Finding Stephanie is almost like a game. It’s like a live action Pokemon GO, or like a real-world version of Where’s Waldo.

Jeff: [00:09:04] It is. You kind of get the adrenaline crankin’, you know, and, and you're really kinda, you know, like, you know, your heart, you know, it's a, it's just like, you know, it's like meeting a celebrity or something.

Tasha: [00:09:14] Even stranger, Stephanie feels like the local Bigfoot. People aren’t just excited that they saw her, but, even though it’s against group rules, some are out there, like, actually hunting for her. Group members know which pay-by-the-week hotel she lives in. They know who she’s dating. And there are videos of her car with the license plate included.

Jeff: [00:09:33] ...the sightings on Stephanie, at one point were coming in daily. I mean, we would have five, six, sometimes eight sightings a day or more that gets posted in the Facebook group and on any given sighting there could be a hundred, 200, 300 comments. People talking back and forth, “where's she at?” You know, and all this kind of stuff. And it got to where...and we have to really be careful so we don't step up, step across the lines of possible stalking or something like that.

Tasha: [00:09:58] Some of the videos show interactions with her when she wasn’t even currently in asking mode. She’s just being there.

Video: [00:10:07] There she goes, Stephanie, behind that column right there, y'all. She hiding, that's her, I promise. Out on the prowl. She got pink pants on and a black jacket. Behind that column, she won't come out.


I got you, Stephanie! I got you! Paparazzi on that ass! Look, she running, y'all. She running. Stephanie running. Watch her. Allright then, Stephanie! Flip me a bird! Allright then!

Tasha: [00:10:49] What strikes me is that in each of these videos, Stephanie hangs her head, and quickly walks away. She doesn’t really argue and she’s not combative.

At first, before I sat down to think about it, the videos made me laugh. We’ve been trained to enjoy television “gotcha” moments. But taking them in — en masse — I get quiet. Then somber. Then I’m sober. I’m swimming in the weirdness she must be experiencing.

Jeff says the goal of the group is to get scammers to stop. That money going to professional beggars takes money away from people and services that really need it. But even more, he says the goal is to get Stephanie to get the help she needs. Ultimately he wants her to go home to her family.

Earlier this year one of Stephanie’s cousins posted on the group saying they were logging on just to check and see if she was still alive — and still fighting with life.

I tried to find Stephanie. To hear her story.

[Phone recording] Is that the car right in front of us? That's the car. Yes. Oh shit...I don't know. I'm so torn! Like to pull up, to pull up at a place where someone’s hotel is. Where they're living. Knowing who they are and wanting to talk to this person is...just, feels like crossing a line — or not staying in my lane. I don't...I don't know.

I left a note on her car.

And I reached out a few times online. But she hasn’t responded yet. And honestly, I don’t blame her. On top of whatever personal challenges she has going on — the paranoia of having random strangers approach, videotape, name her, and, well, leave notes on her car, must be bewildering.

At that point, I didn’t want to keep pursuing her. I was already feeling a little slimy and anticipating that a face-to-face wouldn’t really go that well. I’d already tried to spell out why I wanted to talk with her. I tried to be vulnerable and transparent. And my next best option seemed to be to place myself in her target so she would ask me for money. But we’ve seen enough of those videos.

I’m realizing that Stephanie Alley, this specific woman, well she’s not really my curiosity. I want to understand The Stephanie. Like The Stephanie as a metaphor for anyone asking for money. So, if I can’t talk to her, who can give me this insight? The true story. So, I could talk to people I’ve met on the street, or even better, maybe a former panhandler. Or, someone who has been on both the asking and receiving sides.

But first, I’m gonna talk to an expert.

Before we go there, though, it’s important to note that Jeff makes a clear distinction between benign panhandlers and the more-malignant scammers. There's a meme in the group. And it says, " I have no problem with helping the needy, I do however have a problem with funding the lazy". The former generally get a pass in the group with the latter being the focus. So, to be scammed, I’m thinking, means we’ve been promised something explicitly and then I get something else. Like the bank scam email I got this week. Okay, so, they’re going to give me some of this money if I agree to hold a bunch of it for them. And in the end, you know, I’m gonna end up in the red. Now that’s a scam.

So, what does a Stephanie promise? And what did the giver lose in the end? Well, my best guess is that she promises that we are helping her out somehow. She promises, maybe implicitly, that $26 is all she needs. So when people see the same Stephanie year after year, they’re just disappointed. They’re kind of hurt. They wish their money had done the trick — and they feel helpless.

But anger? Why are we getting angry about this? I reached out to a psychologist to help me understand this one emotional response.

Volney: [00:15:15] I think I understand the anger part. Like any one of us, if we, if we fall for a pitch, we're angry later. Because we got duped and we don't like feeling duped.

Tasha: [00:15:27] This is Vanderbilt psychologist and anthropologist Dr. Volney Gay. We chatted through zoom so sometimes the audio...it’s gonna be a little bit sketchy.

Volney: [00:15:35] I think Stephanie is a performer, sales person, actress who can sell it. And so like all salespeople. She hones her pitch. If you've ever bought a used car, you will, you will know about pitches and style.

So...and most of us have experiences with car salesman that are mixed, at best, where we feel pushed around or scammed or taken advantage of. That doesn't mean that they're lying in a legally prosecutable way, but it does mean we're being bamboozled. And most of us, including me, don't like it.

I noticed some of the Facebook people — really hostile to Stephanie and call her names. I think that's extreme. She's, she makes a living. And she makes a living scamming, but frankly, that's not entirely new to America.

Tasha: [00:16:36] So I guess the anger makes sense when there’s been an expectation of a return on our investment...and Dr. Gay says that in vulnerable situations where there are power dynamics at play...people really can go overboard.

Volney: [00:16:48] ...you know, she's certainly the most vulnerable person they're gonna come...well, mostly the most vulnerable a person will come across. Uh, it may be, you mentioned calling out, calling out pretty much devolves into slanderous group attack on people, from what I can tell.

Morality begins with looking at oneself, which is hard enough to do...to me, part of the crisis of online community is the lowest common denominator of human feeling I think is rage, excitement, thrills. Visceral…

Anger is a pleasurable feeling to have. Anger’s a discharge I think. It's...notice as you go from protest, which takes discipline to, um, a riot, which takes no discipline — to go to a more public distinction. Those aren't...those aren't the same thing. I think the, the urge to attack, belittle, shame. Call-out, it's nothing to be proud of.

Jakob: [00:18:03] Alright. Part two, where we actually learn how we should give, coming up in a moment.

Tasha: [00:18:13] Asking for money comes in different forms. The one we see the most here in Nashville often involves cardboard with a handwritten message. Colloquially, this is referred to as "flying a sign". Then there’s the more interactive type of fundraising, like Stephanie. The person who approaches you in the grocery store parking lot.

I can feel it before I see them. My lizard brain, it’s aware that I’m now the destination of someone only a few yards away.

Oh god, here comes the eye contact, allright. Here we go.

It hadn’t occurred to me that asking for money took skill, and guts — and even training — until I met Randy. A man living under the street by the Cumberland River near downtown Nashville. He told me about a time he trained a younger homeless man how to panhandle.

Randy: [00:19:04] Well, you got some people that lives on the street that don't even know how to panhandle. They're scared, you know? I pulled one guy, young guy, to the side. He's 18 years old. I said, “I tell you what," I said, "I'll tell you what I do." I said, "I let you tag with me for a day. Let you see how I do it. And then the next day I try you out. See how you do it."

Tasha: [00:19:34] The guy watched Randy all day.

Randy: [00:19:38] ...he heard the lines that I tell them, you know, and, uh, next day I turned him a-loose. I said, “look," I said. "Go up in front of me. Stay in front of me." I said, "Let me stay behind you and watch if you, if I see you fixing to start messing up.” I said, “I’ll intervene in it. I’ll help you out.”

Tasha: [00:19:57] And as Randy watched, the kid didn’t mess up a single time.

Randy: [00:20:02] And he made more money that day than I did the other day I was teaching, you know? And, uh, that, that comes to show you, out here, you gotta do what you gotta do in order to survive.

Tasha: [00:20:18] Honestly, if Randy came up to me today, I would cut him right off. I don’t want to hear the story. Part of that is an aggressive attempt to save my time. Cut to the chase. And part of it is a sloppy attempt to save him some dignity. I don’t want to hear the story because I don’t believe it. Not in its entirety, anyway. To adopt some Buddhist philosophy, it may be real, but it’s not true.

There’s a scene in the Tina Fey movie Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot where a reporter named Kim is at a market in Afghanistan. A boy is on the ground — he’s crying with a smashed crate of eggs. Kim’s boyfriend gives him some money. She snaps at him and she tells him it’s a scam. “I know it’s a scam, Kim,” he says “so what? He’s still begging in the street.”

That scene changed the way I think about begging. As much as I don’t like being approached, and as tired as I am of the two neighbors who actually knock on my door to ask for a dollar, and as much as I feel like they’re crossing a line, I just can’t see panhandling as the easy way out. I can’t imagine much harder work than dollar-by-dollar day-by-day existence.

Without getting to talk to Stephanie, I can’t say exactly what her situation is. But I wanted to talk with someone who might understand what people like her, and people like the neighbors who come to my door, are going through...more than I do, anyway. Someone who has actually been there.

And so I found a woman. Someone who, well, has been through a lot. And who really kinda shook me sane with her honesty.

Teresa: [00:21:59] Some people treat you all right. Some people treat you like dirt.

Tasha: [00:22:02] Teresa, she lives in a pay-by-the-week motel in Nashville. She has a prominent hunchback. And I ask her if it’s from childhood.

Teresa: [00:22:10] No, uh, actually, honestly, it was out here foolin' with drugs. I got septic. It was something that was sticking in the, in the, uh, heroin. And, uh, I got septic.

Tasha: [00:22:22] Teresa’s been through multiple surgeries, she’s a child abuse survivor and a domestic violence survivor. She’s gotten clean multiple times. And she took care of her mom the last 4 years of her life.

Teresa: [00:22:32] After I lost my mother I'd give up the will to live. You goes back to what you know, and that was just it, you know?

Tasha: [00:22:47] The last time Teresa overdosed was on fentanyl and she almost didn’t make it back from that one. And since then, she’s built herself up from a wheelchair in a tent in the woods behind a Walmart.

Before selling a local street paper called The Contributor, Teresa spent 8 years panhandling for a living. She called her spot her "therapy corner". It’s literally where she learned to walk again.

Her panhandling sign said, “Living on a prayer!!! Thank you and God bless!!”

Teresa: [00:23:13] Some people, you know, won't even wave at you. And like, I tell them, you know, you know, even God, you know, was homeless. Read the Bible. Even God was homeless. You know, some of them look at you and I'll tell them “smiles and waves are free. They don't cost you a dime baby.”

Tasha: [00:23:36] I ask her about pitches. So, Teresa’s never had one, but she has friends who panhandle that way, and she understands that — even if the story isn’t completely true, and even if they’re an addict, they still need the money.

Teresa: [00:23:51] Yeah they need the money because they're dopesick, usually. Or they need to pay for their room. They need to eat. They need to do whatever they want to do with their money.

I'm not good at that because most of the time it's nothing but...it’s half truths. I'm a person I'm straight up and honest. And I don't want to sit here and lie to anybody's face and I'm not going to sit here and lie to anybody's face.

Tasha: [00:24:14] Teresa very much believes in karma. And she thinks honesty sometimes even pays off...in money.

Teresa: [00:24:20] Like I had a gentleman one day and um, worked for a cable company. And I said, "thank you, this will pay for my room." He said, "don't tell me what you're going to do with it," he said, "because you'd be lying." I, oh, and that made me mad. Oh that went all over me. I looked at him. I said, "no, I ain't got no reason to lie to you because that's what I do with my money." I said, "at one point in time in life it might've been, and it might've been going to drugs, but it ain't no more motherfucker."

Tasha: [00:24:47] In that moment, she had to hold herself back.

Teresa: [00:24:50] And do you know that man apologized to me and threw me $20 more. I was like, I've got no reason to lie to you and I'm not gonna lie to you, you know, cause you have to make up another lie to cover that one. No, no, no.

Tasha: [00:25:09] I ask Teresa if she thinks this is the last time she’ll have to get sober and she tells me there’s an old adage her counselors told her: a grateful addict is one that’s usually going to stay clean this time. And Teresa’s grateful.

Teresa: [00:25:23] I'm good. I'm blessed. I am very, very blessed. I don't know why I'm crying. But I'm thankful. I'm alright. I'm going to take care of me. Used to, I wouldn't. I didn't care. Now, I care. I'm something. God don't make no junk. God don't make no junk.

Tasha: [00:25:51] For years I worked for a nonprofit that equipped men and women who had been homeless to write and sell a street newspaper. I felt like I was doing all that I could to help. And I didn’t want to give more after I clocked out. I also lived with the popular and practical concern that I might accidentally support a habit if I gave.

Then Pope Francis helped out in 2017. So, he announced that we could just give — and not worry about it. He said that giving was “always right”.

But, man. I can’t let things go that easy. It’s just too simple. Like, giving is always right? Seriously? Like don’t we need some discernment? And some struggle?

This makes me think back to one of the smartest things I’ve ever read on the topic.

There was a street newspaper in New York in the ‘90’s that briefly had a column called “Ask Homey”. Readers would write in and ask a homeless author for advice. One of the questions sounds like it was from our Facebook group:

Dear Homey, I want to help the homeless people of New York and do whatever I can. The problem is I get mad when I see people asking for help who I know aren’t homeless. It makes me not want to give anymore. What can be done about these people?

This is Homey: helping people and getting rid of con men are, to my mind, separate aspirations...

Homey: [00:27:08] ...it is not clear to me why your desire to do one should be predicated upon the other.

Like all of our institutions, charity has its hucksters. We encounter stock-market hustlers, cops on the take, bought-and-sold politicians. Should we therefore abandon our desire to increase our fortunes? Maintain order? Govern ourselves?

Human commerce, in whatever form, requires exercising a degree of caveat emptor.

But if discerning between the genuine and the fake presents too much drudgery, perhaps instead of trying to help homeless people as a matter of course, you might single out a homeless person or family and develop enough of a relationship to determine true need.

Keep in mind that money is not the only means by which you can help people. Isolation, alienation and disenfranchisement — issues that aren’t easily faked — take the greatest toll upon people living in the streets. Your genuine interest in getting to know someone cut off from society can be, in and of itself, supremely effective.

Tasha: [00:28:40] Homey was the pseudonym of Lee Stringer. I heard him on NPR years ago.

Robert Siegel: [00:28:45] Commentator Lee Stringer spent a decade on the streets of New York, but he's still learning that life's…

Tasha: [00:28:50] I didn't know someone who had been homeless could be so brilliant.

I devoured his first book, bought his new memoir and dragged a carfull of people down to New Orleans for a book signing where we were just about the only people who showed up. We went to dinner with him. Walked around the city, and I've kept in touch, and have been in love, ever since.

Lee: [00:29:09] So my name is, I was born Caverly Eden Stringer. So you might think that I'm a WASP, but, I'm not. Um, I, um, I was homeless for 12 years during which I actually took up the name Lee Stringer, uh, cause it was easier to do...to deal with. But also when I later became a...started to write, I wrote under the name Lee Stringer and, uh, when what will be my first book was ready for publication. I was advised not to use Caverly because it's hard to remember...and guess, who, who advised me that?

Tasha: [00:29:58] Who was it?

Lee: [00:29:59] Kurt Vonnegut. Like his name is easy to remember!

Tasha: [00:30:06] Or like his advice is easy to ignore! You can't. You didn't have a choice.

Lee: [00:30:14] Um, I spent 12 years, uh, living homeless, more or less, in Manhattan, uh, and also was addicted to crack at the time. And, uh, at the end of which, um, I kind of tumbled into a book deal, uh…they're a small publishing firm, but they're respected. They said, uh, "maybe if you're ready, maybe you want to do a book." And I says, "Well. Do a book? That's..you're seeing me doing a book?" Then I thought, "wait a minute. Book. Advance. Money. Crack. Yeah! I'm a book-writing motherfucker! Let's write us a book!"

Tasha: [00:30:59] I tell him about Stephanie and the Facebook group.

Lee: [00:31:07] Well, it occurred to me while you were telling me this story. I thought "well, okay, you got all these people now focused on this phony panhandler, we'll say. Although, she's not phony. She's panhandling. How you be phony, phony panhandler if that's your income? You’re a professional panhandler, but be that as it may.

Now, what, the public now, what are they focused on? They're focused on trying to catch her. But what does that accomplish ultimately? You see? What does that accomplish? Well, a couple of things, negatives, happen. Number one, if we're looking for, for phoneys, then a lot less people who are out there needy, trying to get ahead that aren't going to get it. Because we're gonna be...our skepticism level goes up. Understand what I mean? So, and, and we're focused not from empathizing, but in doing some kind of detective work. But I'll add this on top of that. It's a little more philosophical which is one way not to get caught in that trap...is giving to a panhandler or not is not about the panhandler. It's about who you are. It's about what your, where your, how your heart works. It doesn't matter what they're doing. What are your intentions, you know, when you do it, that's what it's about. And so if you stay in that place, it really doesn't matter what, what the person is doing.

Tasha: [00:32:55] A couple of years ago, Lee and I were having lunch in Grand Central Terminal in New York City where, before he got clean, he lived for more than a decade. The place is packed with tourists, travelers and homeless folks. One guy comes up to our table, looks right at Lee and asks him for change. I hold my breath wondering what he’ll do. He gives him a couple of dollars.

Lee: [00:33:17] I thought I said “get outa our face. We're eating.” No, I didn't say that. Um, I, what I said, because I get asked this a lot. "Should I do this? And should I do that? If, if a homeless person approaches me, panhandling, should I?" And, and, and I say, "well, if you take the word 'homeless' out of that question, it's an easy question to answer...put the word ‘homeless’ back in, then what you're really asking me is 'what should my policy be when somebody comes up to me?', in other words, 'How do I avoid a human exchange?' What do I do automatically?'" And I say, "I don't, I try not to have a policy. I try to deal with it in the minute, and whatever's in that minute."

...But that's when people say, “well, what if they're going to use it for drugs or something?” And that's when I said, “you know, what are you...going to get moral authority over me for a buck?”

I don't, I don't look at it that way, no, unless I know them well, and they're, and I'm, entwined  with their, their life...especially when it comes to something like drugs and alcohol. You have to go a certain distance and crash into a wall before you get the real impetus to, to go get help, and listen to that help and apply it and get clean. So, you know, another $10 in the fund, another drink to get you there. It's not necessarily a bad thing.

Tasha: [00:34:55] Perhaps that’s crazy thinking. Or maybe it’s epicly advanced. I don’t know. That even if someone uses the money for drugs, that giving might still be the right thing at the right time.

In any case, I don’t have a final answer. Other than it seems the answer to my question...how should I give...when should I give...who should I give to...well, it’s a heart thing. It's a human thing. People have always begged for money.

70% of us in America don’t have access to $1000. That’s a really wide crack in the system.

Even if someone has a Honda Civic. Even if someone has nice nails, or a roof over their head. If they’re asking for money, story regardless, they’re still begging in the street. And my question is — is it my turn to engage, or not, and how deep or shallow will I go? And if I give, I think my responsibility is to do so without any strings or expectations. I don’t tell my waitress what to do with her tips. And giving someone a dollar does not give me moral authority over their life.

As for Stephanie Alley in Jeff’s Facebook Group, no one’s seen her in a while. Jeff’s last post says “Seems weird without 3 to 10 or so Stephanie sightings a day! Makes me wonder if she quit her scamming, or found new grounds with unknowing victims.”

Members chime in with their guesses. Many of them think she may be on unemployment. And a few mention seeing her car at the same hotel. And some comments are more than tinted with a little meanness. But some are softer.

A woman named Lynn says “I pray she's clean and doing better. No matter what she's still someone's daughter, mother, sister, aunt...etc.”

For me, I think she’s also Stephanie. Complicated, complete, hopeful, disgraced, discouraged and determined Stephanie. And if I meet her someday. I don’t know if I’ll help her out with some money or not. But I hope I’m kind. And I hope we have a mutually beneficial and humanizing interaction. Just two women. Each one with a question.

Jakob: [00:37:21] That's Tasha A.F. Lemley.

Thanks to the members of the neighborhood on Patreon. If you want to help support the show and support telling stories like this, um, that are true and honest and connecting, consider throwing us a few bucks on Patreon at patreon.com/neighbors. You can join our kind, intelligent and thoughtful community there as well as get a few extra things.

Uh, I just wanted to check in about one thing from a previous episode.

Today, literally today, like, I don't know, three hours ago, I go to my mailbox and I get a letter from the penpal that reached out to me, I guess, last episode. From Magdeburg, Germany. And I...it's my first physical letter and, uh, his son gave me a Pokémon card. And his daughter, uh, drew me a little picture and he told me all about his life and I'm really excited to write him back.

So, mail! Isn't mail great, is my point.

Our Sonic logo is from Dallas Taylor at Defacto Sound. Check out his podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. Music is by Blue Dot Sessions. This song is by Dan Burns. Neighbors is hosted and produced by me and often Cariad. Leave us a rating in Apple Podcasts so we can get big in Japan.

I'm Jacob Lewis, and I'm reminding you to get to know your neighbors.