A 'Gypsy' Tale? East Bay Cities Deal With Panhandler Problem

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    No one really knows just who they are but their presence has caused cities to check their books to see if panhandling laws actually exist in their jurisdiction, religious organizations to warn their parishes not to donate money and local authorities to tell the panhandlers to stay away.

    One law enforcement officer says says they come by bus and are dropped off at local shopping centers and houses of worship in the East Bay.

    At different houses of worship, the group will adhere to the religious practices of that particular house of worship before asking for money. They are only interested in cash, the people who have met them contend.

    Residents, religious worshipers and public officials have identified the group as "Gypsies" based on their appearance, the language they speak and their names.

    The quaint East Bay cities of Dublin, San Ramon and Danville are known for their picturesque hills, strong school systems and upper middle-class populations.

    Panhandling is something not often seen on the wide roads of the Tri-Valley, where years of recent housing development have only been slowed by the economic downturn.

    The area remains, despite the countries troubles, a comfortable, quiet and safe place to live.

    But recently a group of mysterious and aggressive panhandlers have pushed some in the normally quiet valley to complain to their local law enforcement and the stores that they frequent.

    No one really knows just who they are but their presence has caused cities, like San Ramon, to check their books to see if panhandling laws actually exist in their jurisdiction, religious organizations to warn their parishes not to donate money and local authorities to tell the panhandlers to stay away.

    Where They Come From

    San Ramon Mayor H. Abram Wilson said the group is of Eastern European origin and others have reported seeing them in churches in Haywayrd, public events in Pleasanton, mosques in San Ramon and Dublin and posh shopping centers in Blackhawk and San Ramon.

    "I noticed it about a month ago at the mosque," Wilson said. "It was the first time I was aware, a woman came up with two children with her and she came up and requested money.”

    Wilson said members of the mosque, which is located in the same office complex as San Ramon City Hall, offered the panhandlers food and clothing but they were only after money.

    "They were Romanian gypsies," he said. "Evidently this is a scam they are using to affluent areas”

    Mistaken Identity?

    Identifying the group is no easy task. The San Ramon Police Department approached some panhandlers on multiple occasions and found they had no identification, according to Wilson.

    Members of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center say the panhandlers will dress in traditional Arab clothing in front of their center, with the women covering their hair. They have been seen at religious gatherings or churches between San Ramon and Hayward.

    "Their response is 'Please, brother, help me," said San Ramon Valley Islamic Center board member and San Ramon resident Noman Munif. "The man said his name was 'Sayyid' and his wife’s name is 'Fatima.' But when it came to writing their name it was more eastern European looking. When I asked them what language they speak, he said Romanian and Yugoslavian."

    However, shoppers at the San Ramon Target store say they have also seen the group there and they dress in normal clothing and do not identify themselves as being Arab or Muslim.

    The word Gypsy itself is a weighted word. It most often refers to an ethnic group known as the Romani people, who trace their origins back to the Indian subcontinent and who are often associated with living in Europe but who also have roots across the globe. The Romani people have been forced to endure years of persecution, harassment and stereotypes.

    The term Gypsy has a negative connotation for many within the community, first because it originates from the Greek word for Egyptians, for whom many early Europeans mistook the Romani people.

    The epithet has inherited a number of negative stereotypes over the years, including the allegation that "Gypsies" are thieves, which has been furthered by media portrayals of the minority group.

    "Using the word 'Gypsy' is not only inaccurate but perpetuates the continuation of stereotypes that portray Roma as beggars, swindlers, and thieves; thus the phrase: 'I've been gypped,' the Voice of Roma, a nonprofit organization based in Sebastopol that advocates for the Roma people, says on its website. "The romanticized image of the 'Gypsy' is alive and well in song lyrics, novels, costume parties, musical groups, and other forms of cultural imagery…"

    Authorities and academics know little about the Bay Area Romani community. Calls and emails to multiple cultural groups across the Bay Area were not returned.

    Eli Rosenblatt, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, said she is working with the school to organize an Inaugural Conference in Romani Studies in November largely because there is no one at Berkeley who can speak about the fast growing field of Romani studies.

    The Reaction

    A group of panhandlers that were seen multiple times at the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center during August also showed up at the community's end of Ramadhan celebration last week, accordiong to Munif.

    The event drew more than 2,500 people. Standing outside the gates of the prayer hall was the group dressed as any other worshiper, holding children and a sign saying they had lost their job and needed help.

    Worshippers were told not to donate to the panhandlers. Munif said the center generally has a policy of helping people in need when it can verify the authenticity of their claim.

    "I think generally Muslim organizations and Muslims during the month of Ramadhan are much more generous and more accepting of people in need,” he said. "Maybe these folks are sort of lacking onto the fact and this is a place where people will be generous and not questioning of them.”

    But Wilson's warning to the community to be careful and the group's refusal to accept food and a check made the community wary.

    The center is not alone.

    National Target spokesman Antoine LaFromboise said the outlet's San Ramon store has received numerous complaints about aggressive panhandling outside of its store. He was careful not to use the word gypsy to describe the panhandlers.

    "Obviously we work with our guests towards having a great shopping experience at Target and to have a distraction free environment," he said. "We have had some guests bring this to our attention. Our policy is to really work with local law enforcement to exercise the law in anyway appropriate.”

    LaFromboise said the San Ramon store alerted the local police department and asked them to intervene.

    Wilson said the city is examining its panhandling laws and members of the group have not been cited -- but they have been warned. If they are seen in the area again they will be arrested and their children will be reported to child protective services.