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Wednesday, August 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
A hunger for knowledge of the down-and-outers


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Tom McDevitt went slumming in six cities, posing as a beggar hungry for a meal. Seattle, he says, was the most hospitable city of all.

He tells his tale in "The Hungry American," a slim, self-published volume available on Amazon.com. In it, he recounts his hobo adventures, complete with "bum's ratings" of social services. He gives five stars to Sack Lunch Seattle, the feeding operation near City Hall that for which Mayor Nickels has just limited the hours. He gives five stars also to Northwest Harvest and the Lazarus Center. The Union Gospel Mission earns five stars for food and four for accommodations, which were a bit hard.

In each new city, McDevitt presented his scowling, stubbly face to food-stamp bureaucrats. He said he was hungry. He said he was an uneducated man recently released from prison in Idaho. Actually, he is an Idaho M.D. recently retired from an ear, nose and throat practice.

He was 70 when he made his trek, but had an ID made at Kinko's that said he was 58. A caseworker in Arizona tried to delaminate it, maybe because McDevitt asked about her hairdo, which he describes as "a cornstalk sprouted from the top of her head," and maybe because the ID wasn't too good. It was, however, accepted in Salt Lake City, New York City, San Francisco and at the Washington Department of Social and Health Services office at 1700 E. Cherry St.

There, he filled out an emergency food application, he writes, "in which I lied to God, country, the state of Washington and myself." The next day, his food-stamp debit card was activated with $101.

He didn't use any food-stamp cards. I asked him about that. "I felt it was stealing," he said. He also tried panhandling only once, in Salt Lake City, with a sign saying "Diabetes. Please Help." (His wife had died of diabetes.) After collecting his first $1.50, he stopped. "I felt guilty," he said. He also didn't take Northwest Harvest's generous bag of food. He did eat free meals and sleep in free shelters.

McDevitt expresses gratitude that "men and women went to work to earn the things for which I paid nothing." His peers took it as a right, he says. Never did they express gratitude for institutional kindness, though they would thank him for an unexpected cigarette.

He found in the down-and-outers a kind of street-smart solidarity. "It is not the rich that prey on the poor," he writes — the rich are somewhere in the stratosphere — "but rather those one step above them on the economic ladder: taxi drivers, clerks, waiters and, worst of all, security guards and their fellow bums."

What raised tension most often was drugs. McDevitt's most disturbing night was at a shelter in San Francisco, where he was assigned a bed next to a crack dealer who did an all-night business injecting clients.

Mostly, the people living in shelters were not looking for work. Either they had messed up their minds or they had had enough of work. There was an easy variety to their life and a Huckleberry Finn acceptance of things, but at the cost of eating other people's food and coming and going by other people's rules. They seemed to spend a lot of their lives waiting in line.

McDevitt relates his account in a matter-of-fact voice, stripped of sentimentality. "I don't have an agenda," he told me. "I'm not a crusader. I just went out there to see how it is." He's a retired guy who took up writing, and chose to do firsthand research of a kind that almost no one ever does.

His 198-page volume has two questions on the cover: "Are Americans starving?" and "Does anyone care?" McDevitt answers that people do care, and the homeless are not starving. What street beggars crave is not food, which they have plenty of, but "tobacco, alcohol, drugs and relief for a tortured mind."

There is no argument in his book against generosity. After staying at the Union Gospel Mission, he sent it a check for $100. He sent $100 to the Millionair Club. "We should love our neighbor and be charitable," he told me. "But we should not feel guilty about these people, because we are taking care of them."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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