By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A while back, we ran an article in this paper about a local Bensonhurst celebrity, “Maria, the Ice Cream Girl,” who is well-known for her charity efforts and her occasional forays into show business as well as for selling ice cream.
As we reported, it seems that Maria (whose real name is Campanella) recently recorded a YouTube video, “Yo Granny’s In My Garbage.” The video featured an actress in an old-fashioned Chinese coolie-style hat rummaging through garbage cans for soda cans and bottles in the middle of the night, and wakening an annoyed Campanella.
Some Asian-Americans protested that the video is anti-Asian. One also said that the “granny” actress was also wearing yellowish makeup, although I couldn’t see that. Ms. Campanella denied charges of prejudice – she said that the hat is “just a hat,” and that she is annoyed by all can-collectors, not only Asians. In the end, Campanella, saying that “some of my best friends are Asians,” or something like that, pulled the video.
One can easily understand how someone could be annoyed with can collectors going through your garbage, especially early in the morning, or even walking down your street dragging a sack full of cans. The can collectors tend to be shabbily dressed, adding to their lack of “visual appeal.”
But Ms. Campanella is not asking the real question: Why are there so many can collectors to begin with?
Certainly, there have always been very poor people around, even when society was at its most prosperous. As the Bible says, “The poor shall always be with you.” But there were mechanisms to take care of those on “skid row,” many of whom are addicted to drugs or alcohol, mentally ill, and/or both.
There were SRO (single-room occupancy) hotels that cost very little, so people wouldn’t have to sleep in the middle of Grand Central Station or the Port Authority. There were other, cheaper “flophouses” on the Bowery. There were also many more beds in psychiatric hospitals and halfway houses, for the hardcore mentally ill.
Starting around the 1980s, the city, perhaps at the request of real estate developers, started to shut down the SROs, many of which were in prime locations such as Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They also, out of concern for the mentally ill, started to reduce the number of beds in mental institutions, figuring that halfway houses, where the mentally ill could learn social and work skills, would be better for them.
The trouble was that there often wasn’t enough funding for those halfway houses, either. So you got a new, larger “population” of street people in the five boroughs. And to top it off, jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled workers have been steadily leaving the city for 40 years or more.
I don’t pretend to know the answer to these problems. I do know that I’d rather have a street person collecting cans than approaching me for spare change with his or her hand open.
I’m not necessarily a “bleeding heart” by nature—if someone wearing dirty, ripped and stained clothes and speaking unintelligible English came up to me with his hand out, my first impulse (which I would suppress) would be to say two rather impolite words to him. But unlike Ms. Campanella, I would not make fun or him (or her) either – I would know that he is basically a victim.
In summary, the hardcore homeless street people need competent, professional help, not ridicule.