Beware of scamming squatters

By Rosanna Gill |

Upon my arrival at Flagler College, there were so many things to see and experience. The college is full of history and the city is beautiful.

But somewhere between my acclimation to Flagler and my tours of St. Augustine, the other side of downtown showed itself — the darker, less ornate side of the city.

It lurks in darkened areas, sleeps on park benches and has no qualms with crossing the bounds of personal space.

My first encounter with this less attractive aspect of St. Augustine was one night after work when I still lived in the dorms.

As a waitress in a restaurant downtown, I had already passed people sleeping on benches while walking to Ponce Hall, but I had never actually interacted with them.

On a chilly November night, I was walking with a coworker through the Kenan parking lot toward Ponce Hall when a thin, brown-haired man in his early 20s approached us.

He told us he had been stranded in St. Augustine when his car gave out and needed money to get back to Jacksonville.

I was wary, but in my naivete did not want to believe he was lying, so when he said he needed $10 or $20, I gave him $15. He thanked me profusely and walked away.

My coworker asked me why I would give someone money who was young and could work. I said I was in no position to say whether or not he deserved the money, but I would hate to think he was genuinely stranded and I had not helped him. Then, my coworker opened my eyes.

The young man had come into our restaurant a few times asking for free food or to sell a broken cell phone.

Over the next few months after that night, I saw my stranded friend on a few different occasions. I still wonder what my $15 was used for.

Don’t mistake these people as simply homeless. The younger ones, the ones who are college-age, often prefer to be called “squatters” and choose to ask for money to support their transient lifestyles.

On the social networking site MySpace, there are groups devoted to the topic of “squatting” — taking up illegal residence on public property — and the best places to go and the best methods of “spanging” — asking for spare change. St. Augustine is fairly popular because of the mild weather and number of tourists.

The squatter-oriented group with the most members is called “I packed my bags one day and hit the open road” and has 315 members. There are various posts with members suggesting ways to ask for money or spange.

Some suggest making people laugh while another member called “Ex Resident B” says couples are the best to target because they are more likely to give more money. “Ex Resident B” also said she has no problem asking big because she has found asking for change only gets change. Some get a little more creative.

“Tired of pidgeon, sick of squirrel, change for a real meal,” posted by Straps.

Another member whose display name is “I am just a choking victim” capitalized on people’s sympathy. He posted his typical conversation.

“Excuse me sir/miss. You got any spare change? I’m trying to get home.”
“Where’s home?”
“(pick random city/state)”
“What are you doing here?”
“My girlfriend was supposed to pick me up from the bus station but she abandoned me.”
“I got a 20 once,” posted “choking victim.”

Some of the members are squatters for different reasons. While some live that way to avoid being tied down to one place, others are squatters to beat the system and defy the government.

So you avoided the government and you beat the system, but if you have to ask me for my hard-earned money, are you not still dependent on someone?

And because I pay taxes and have not defied the government and you accept my money, aren’t you still contributing to the system?

Let’s be honest. People are squatters because they don’t want to work and find it easier to take handouts.

Despite my bitterness at the thought of someone living off of my earnings, I did give a guy money the other day because he had a dog with him and his sign said they needed money for dog food.

I doubt they bought dog food, but my theory is if they got money and did not feed the dog, karma is against them and I hope it catches up. Call me a sucker, a bitter sucker at that, but I hope that in the end, people’s good will prevail.

For those less hopeful than myself, check out the MySpace page, and maybe the next time a squatter uses a line to ask for money you’ll be a little wiser and refuse. And then they’ll find me.

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