Leaving the Sprouts Market in Clairemont last week, I saw a young blonde woman standing at the parking-lot exit with a cardboard sign and a stroller. As I approached the exit, she leaned into the stroller for a moment. Suddenly, a young red-headed girl was craning her neck from the stroller to smile at me and the others behind me.
I've seen children being used to beg more often lately, especially in front of the Target and McDonald’s on Balboa Avenue. Sometimes the children are even holding the cardboard signs in the sun while the adults sit in the shade.
I've always been someone who gave money to beggars. I assumed that anyone who had to ask a stranger for help must be hurting. Until I saw "the shift change" at the corner of Midway and Rosecrans in Point Loma. As a young man stood on the median with a cardboard sign begging, I witnessed a four-door car pull up beside him. Another man jumped out of the car onto the median and traded places with the beggar. The cardboard sign was handed off as the original beggar disappeared into the same car. I thought to myself, Did that just happen? I stopped asking this when I saw the same thing occur a few months later at a median on Balboa and Genesee in Clairemont. Different beggars, same scenario.
I've heard rumors about organized begging for years but before the "shift change" I had never seen it. Then something occurred to me: I know every homeless person in my neighborhood. I see them almost every day and I always talk to them when our paths cross (usually when walking my dogs). I have never once witnessed any begging from the known homeless in my neighborhood. I see the same homeless people for years but the beggars always have new faces. How can this be?
After discussing this with neighbors face-to-face and on nextdoor.com, I heard similar stories about kind-hearted people giving items to mothers and children who were begging in front of stores, only to later find all of their gifts left behind.
By far, the most disturbing incident was shared by Laura F. on nextdoor.com: "About a year or so ago I have a relative that saw someone they knew holding a sign with a child. They were not in Clairemont where they live. They were in Point Loma. This person doesn't have any children. It turned out this person was getting paid to babysit and would take the child because the handouts were bigger with children present. The parents had no idea this was happening until they were spotted."