Couple supports family through panhandling; Ashland merchants fear negative impact on customers
By JENNIFER MARGULIS
for the Mail Tribune
The first time 30-year-old Elizabeth Johnson stopped a stranger on the street to ask for money, she was really nervous. She was six months pregnant and desperate, having just spent seven days in jail for shoplifting books.
“How are people going to perceive me?” Johnson remembers wondering. “Theyâ€re going to think Iâ€m crazy.”
That was six years ago in Madison, Wis. The Ashland mother says in hindsight, she believes she was socially conditioned to think that if you ask people for money something is wrong with you.
Since then she has changed her mind.
“I donâ€t believe that at all anymore,” Johnson says.
Now Johnson and her 34-year-old partner, Jason Pancoast, who have been together for 14 years, support themselves and their three children, 6-year-old Seth, 3-year-old Adrianne and 3-month-old Synclair, by panhandling.
Pancoast refers to himself and his family as “affluent beggars.”
“If youâ€re an affluent beggar you stay in a hotel and eat a continental breakfast,” he says. “It makes it a lot easier to be philosophical about it.”
Carrying her smiling baby in a navy blue front pack and pushing Adrianne in a green jogging stroller, Johnson stops people on the street and asks them for money to find shelter for her children.
“I ask the question and I move on,” says Johnson, who adds that she is careful to be non-aggressive when she begs.
The family has stayed in Ashland since the summer in order for Seth to attend the Waldorf-inspired experimental classes at Willow Wind, part of the Ashland public school system.
“They are a lovely family,” says Sethâ€s teacher, Trisha Mullinnix, who has been working with children for 25 years. “They fill all the needs of the classroom teacher â€” they are attentive, they come to school on time, they are available to me to talk to them. Seth is loving and happy and well fed and clean. He comes prepared to learn.”
The family is staying at the Cedarwood Inn in a room with a kitchenette. It costs $243 a week. Johnson and Pancoast are hoping to find something more permanent.
According to Pancoast, begging can be lucrative. He claims the family sometimes makes $300 a day asking for money and has made as much as $800. The family also receives $500 a month in food stamps.
But the presence of a well-fed, well-dressed family begging from strangers on the streets does not sit well with some Ashland locals, though none who spoke with the Mail Tribune would allow themselves to be identified.
“I always felt bad for her because she had a baby in the hot summer sun,” says Debbie, an Ashland resident who asked that her last name not be used. Debbie remembers Johnson, Pancoast and their children from their first visit to Ashland in 1999 and has given Johnson money on several occasions. “That kind of thing tugs on anyoneâ€s heartstrings,” she says.
But then Debbie saw Pancoast drop Johnson off at the Ashland Plaza in a nice car and kiss her and the baby goodbye. “Then I became a little bitter,” Debbie says. “I was working my tail off at three jobs â€” waitressing and babysitting â€” and I see her eating at restaurants that are so expensive I canâ€t afford to eat there.”
Ashland police officer Teri DeSilva says that in the summer, she receives on average one call of complaint a week about Johnsonâ€s begging.
In response to community concern, DeSilva called the local child-welfare office for the state Department of Human Services to evaluate the family.
“They came out and interviewed her, and said those babies are just fine,” DeSilva says. “Theyâ€re well-cared for, theyâ€re well-dressed, there are no signs of abuse. If you look at those children they are plump and happy.”
But according to DeSilva, the shopkeepers downtown continue to complain. “A lot of the store owners are upset about it,” she says. “Iâ€ve talked to her on several occasions and asked her to move along.”
Merchants are afraid that Johnsonâ€s presence begging with her children has a negative impact on their customers. “The people visiting here are not happy seeing that type of behavior,” says a downtown clothing merchant who asked not to be identified. "We have so many complaints from our customers who shop here. They come in talking about her and being upset by her â€¦ they donâ€t want to be harassed like that.
“If we end up with a lot of people like this it is going to deter people from coming to visit,” she says.
Ashland police Chief Mike Bianca points out that begging is not illegal. “Can you be a beggar in America? Yes, you can,” says Bianca. “â€¦The state is not going to step in and take those kids away unless there is some recognizable or identifiable abuse or neglect.”
Johnson says she doesnâ€t want to get a job because it would keep her away from her children.
Pancoast says he would like to get a job, but finding suitable employment has been difficult. His lack of experience and difficulty with jobs in the past make it even more challenging.
“What do I say? â€˜Iâ€ve been traveling for seven years, I havenâ€t had a job?â€” he says. “People donâ€t know what to say to me.”
Both are originally from the East Coast. Johnson was born in New York and Pancoast in Philadelphia. They met when Johnson was 16 years old and in high school.
At the time, her parents were divorced and Johnson was living with her mother and stepfather. Johnson says her mother abused drugs, was promiscuous and periodically took psychotropic medications; her stepfather, she says, has an extensive criminal record and abused her both psychologically and physically.
Johnson says her stepfatherâ€s idea of a good joke was to put a stocking over his head, climb into her window in the middle of the night and wake her up by shining a flashlight in her eyes.
To escape her chaotic family life, Johnson spent her time at parties and in bars, she says. She met Pancoast at a party in Florida and asked him out.
Pancoastâ€s mother dropped out of high school and gave birth to him when she was 17, he says. He describes her as a “kleptomaniac” who showed little interest in her family. His father is a Vietnam vet. His parents divorced when Pancoast was 16, and he began living on the streets, he says.
“What was striking is that Elizabeth was the one asking me out and I was the older gentleman,” remembers Pancoast, who was 21 at the time. He adds that at that point Elizabeth was “malingering within milieus that were probably not appropriate for a young lady to be spending her time in.” Pancoast quickly fell in love.
Their difficult childhoods and interest in drug culture quickly solidified their bond, the couple say. One of their first experiences together was canoeing on the Withlacoochee River and taking LSD. “Both of us coming from broken homes,” says Johnson, “and needing to develop ourselves.”
“Well, I think we had no love,” Pancoast quickly adds, “we had no clarity â€¦ we were both so disassociated for different reasons.â€¦”
But the more serious they got, the more their families disapproved of their relationship and tried to separate them, the couple say. A fear of being separated continues to haunt their lives.
In addition to the three children who live with them now, Pancoast and Johnson say they have two older sons who both have been adopted into an upper-middle-class family in Alameda, Calif.
Johnson got pregnant when she was not yet 18 and they were living in Gainesville, Fla., shoplifting, doing drugs, and heavily into what Pancoast describes as “death culture.”
At a friendâ€s house they read a classified advertisement in Spin Magazine of a couple looking to adopt a newborn. Johnson and Pancoast talked to that couple and three others, they say.
“From my perspective I was pressured into giving Erik away,” Johnson says. “It seemed like a way out of the desperation I was in as a byproduct of not having a family â€¦ I actually went to go have an abortion and I found out I was too far along, which I was happy about. I didnâ€t want to do that.”
The couple who adopted Erik flew Johnson and Pancoast out to the Bay Area and helped them find a place to live and jobs. Pancoast worked at a record store, Rasputinâ€s, until he was fired, and then at the Monterey Fish Market, until he lost that job as well. Johnson worked in retail. After the first son was born, the adoptive couple asked Johnson and Pancoast to have a second child for them. Ian was born in 1997.
Neither can talk about their two older sons without crying. “I wish we were all together,” says Johnson.
Johnson and Pancoast say they are very different from most of the people living on the street. Neither has attended college but when Johnson dares to dream of the future, she talks of becoming a midwife.
“Weâ€re good people and we love each other,” Johnson says. “To shellac us with anything other than that hurts us and hurts our children.”
Jennifer Margulis is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.