This morning–as most mornings–I entered my local Starbucks to Hi’s from the Baristas. We know each other’s names and they know what I’m going to order. The whole interaction is friendly, quick and trouble-free.
Today, though, things took an unexpected turn. After getting my coffee and returning to my car I encountered a homeless man who was rising from the blacktop and shuffling himself to the curb. How do I know he was homeless? The dirty clothes, the equally dirty pack stuffed to near bursting, the unkempt beard and hair, the smell of someone who’s been unable to take a shower for days or longer. I don’t know what he was doing on the ground. He may have fallen off the curb into the empty parking space before I came out the door. I suspect the man was under the influence of something. Nonetheless, there he was, and there I was. He was far too friendly, to the point of making me nervous, but at 8:00 in the morning and lots of foot traffic in and out of the Starbucks, what could he really do to me?
As I often do, when encountering homeless people, I offered to buy the man something to eat or drink. He accepted my offer of a drink so I turned back to the door, thinking he’d wait for me where he’d left his pack. Instead, he began a rambling conversation about my excellent choice to buy American ( I drive a Ford). He offered the needless information that both of his parents drive Fords (do they know their son is homeless?) and then repeated all this as he followed me into the cafe, reinforcing my thought he was high. He could have been any number of things that ended in homelessness.
We stood in line, Matthew nattering on about the Juice-It-Up next door (of all things), as I grew more uncomfortable. The other customers eyed us as if I’d lost my mind. You could almost hear them thinking What the hell is she thinking? Two employees started to tell the man he wasn’t allowed inside, but I when mentioned I was buying him a drink, they backed off.
I now understand that Matthew must be a regular problem for the cafe and they don’t want him inside their doors for what I’m sure are good reasons. By offering the man a beverage, and him entering the cafe with me, I no doubt angered or upset the partners who greet me with cordiality, remember my name and my coffee choice and do their best to make sure my visits are positive. I broke an unspoken rule when Matthew followed me into the cafe.
Next time I visit, I’ll apologize and ask what they recommend if this happens again. I had no wish to upset the employees who deal with this every day in whatever way Starbucks Inc. has decided is in their best interests. The Baristas only want to do the best job they can and make sure their customers enjoy their visits. If the homeless man in line with me had the effect of spoiling the visit of another customer, the Baristas are likely to be held responsible. For that, I am profoundly sorry.
This is how I feel about today’s encounter. Homeless Matthew and I had a moment of human to human contact. Most of us see homeless people every day. How many of us speak to them, or make eye contact? How many of us mumble, Sorry, I don’t have any change when they panhandle? How many of us pretend they don’t exist?
I agree many don’t use the money they beg for food or shelter, and that drug and alcohol addictions are likely contributing factors to their circumstances. I disagree that they are pariahs, that being homeless is a criminal activity, worthy only of police harassment and public rudeness and/or incarceration. When I offer to buy someone food, am I making it worse? Enabling them to stay on the street another day? Am I acting only to make myself feel better?
The paths that culminate in homelessness are many and varied. It’s not in my capacity to cast moral judgements on anyone. I will say this…Matthew had an experience today that transformed him for a few minutes from scary, nuisance homeless guy to ordinary guy getting a beverage at the local Starbucks. Thanks to the partners who allowed him the dignity of those few minutes.
How many homeless live in your city or town? How many of them go hungry day after day, eating only what they find in the trash or because someone had a generous impulse? Do you ever think about ways to house the homeless or feed the hungry?
I hope that next time a scary, nuisance homeless person approaches you, you’ll at least think about some of this for a quick second and make a decision based on your safety, your previous experience, your willingness to render moral judgement and your ability to look beyond the dirt and smells.