CELEBRITIES who worry about being pestered by fans could take a page from Richard Gere and walk around holding a cup in front of them.

That will absolutely get folks to leave them alone, says Gere, who plays a homeless man in "Time Out of Mind" (opening here Friday) and who found pedestrians going out of their way to avoid him as he shot scenes for the movie in New York - in front of hidden cameras but completely undisguised.

People see the cup, Gere said, not the person holding it.

"We just walked out of a radio program, and there I was Richard Gere. Everyone in the building and their mothers - literally, their mothers - were there wanting a photograph. And they see me, and they're all kind of gaga.

"And I get in the car, and I'm driving here, and I'm again thinking to myself, it's amazing. I'm the same guy I was standing on a street corner in Astor Place in New York, which is where we shot the movie, for 45 minutes, and no one paid any attention. In fact, they were actively not paying attention," Gere said during a stop in Philadelphia a few weeks ago to promote the movie.

"Part of it is body language. There are physical cues that build up, and people pick up on them from blocks away. I could see it happening. They see the figure of a man with a cup in his hand, they project onto that everything they think they know about homeless people, or what that encounter is likely to involve."

And there is a gap, Gere said, between what people think they know about homelessness and what the social science tells us about how to effectively deal with the problem.

For instance, people are told not to give money to the homeless. Gere says, go ahead. Give.

"The answer is to have a roll of one-dollar bills. You can afford it. Give every time. It's good for them, and it's good for you. A dollar is not going to change their life, or yours, but it changes something, the energy that happens when you give from a place of genuine compassion. You're saying, 'I wish you happiness, and I don't want anything in return, and it's not my job to monitor what you do with this buck,' " he said.

His character in "Time Out of Mind" is a man whose alcoholism and mental illness have left him jobless and homeless and just starting to navigate the maze of options available to him, a process made perversely difficult by the fact that he can't remember his Social Security number.

The purpose of "Time Out of Mind," Gere said, is to give people an authentic snapshot of a few days in the life of a homeless man, to start a conversation about the problem.

Gere's been part of that conversation for more than a decade, an active supporter of homeless initiatives in New York City, and a student of the problem everywhere.

He praised the work of Philadelphia philanthropists John and Leigh Middleton, who help fund Project HOME, an organization that finds permanent housing for the homeless.

"The thing is, we actually know what works. There's really good data on this. It's housing. And it's the least expensive option. It saves so much money in the long term. You get people off the streets, you get them into treatment for mental illness, for HIV, whatever they need. It's so much less expensive and more effective than the haphazard, piecemeal way we deal with the problem now," Gere said.

"If people have a sense of community, they can re-engage in the kind of network of relationships that feed success."

Gere, a practicing Buddhist, had planned to be in town next month when the Dalai Lama was to receive the Freedom Medal, but the latter's visit was canceled because of health reasons. Gere's filmed-in-Philadelphia movie "The Benefactor" (formerly titled "Franny") will be part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, which starts Oct. 22.

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