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Christine Schanes

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Why Do We Discriminate Against Homeless People?

Posted: 05/11/11 01:30 PM ET

My homeless friend, Larry, was upset as he recounted his recent experience: "The other day I went to a fast food store, bought a coffee and went outside to sit, drink my coffee and have a cigarette. But, they wouldn't let me. 'Move along,' they said, 'You can't stay here.' All I wanted to do was sit and have my coffee and a cigarette. And I had bought their coffee!"

What could I say to Larry? I have heard this before -- presumably-housed people treating a homeless person differently than they would a housed person. For example, when housed people buy items at a fast food restaurant, we expect to be able to sit in the restaurant or on its patio and enjoy our food. It goes without saying. It's what we expect and it's what we get.

What are we talking about here? Fears. Fear of people we don't know. We've been taught since childhood not to talk to strangers. But we're adults now. We can introduce ourselves to anyone and thereby meet a neighbor and potential friend.

Fear of economic loss by having homeless people on the premises is a concern for any business. Everyone needs a home. But, until everyone has a home, we will have homeless people among us. What is a business to do?

I wonder if when a business accepts the patronage of a homeless person, whether that business has any responsibility to the homeless person. My homeless friend, Jimmy, was involved in a situation lately that gave me pause to think about this.

For over 10 years, Jimmy and his wheelchair-bound wife, Ellen, were homeless. When Ellen died nearly six years ago, Jimmy could not contain his grief and drank to try to literally drown his sorrows. Every day, Jimmy would visit his local convenience store and buy his morning paper and breakfast beer. During the day, as his finances would allow, Jimmy made as many trips to buy beer to the same convenience store. Needless to say, Jimmy has been a consistent customer for many years.

But his last trip to his convenience store was different. As Jimmy tells it, when selecting his morning newspaper, he thought he had paid for it and put it in his bag. Jimmy was still in the store when the owner of the convenience store approached Jimmy and told him that because he had tried to steal the newspaper, Jimmy was henceforth barred from shopping in his convenience store.

The day after this incident, Jimmy told me that he felt terrible about being barred from his convenience store.

Please know that I am not condoning theft by any means by any person, housed or unhoused. However, misunderstandings do arise.

So, I offered to speak to the owner of the convenience store on Jimmy's behalf. Jimmy said that he would apologize to the management for the incident.

Unfortunately, the owner of the convenience store was not present when I went there, so I left my phone number with the manager and asked that owner call me so we could discuss the incident. [Note: the owner never called me.]

I shared Jimmy's feelings about the incident with the manager. She was not interested in anything I had to say on Jimmy's behalf. She did tell me repeatedly and with feeling that "they" are always standing outside the store and that "once 'they' steal from us, 'they' can never come back."

I said that there was only one person involved in this incident and it was Jimmy. The manager did not know Jimmy's name, but said that she did know that he had been coming to the store for years. She said that since he had stolen from the convenience store, he was barred from shopping there in the future.

I said that I understood her position, but that Jimmy felt terrible about the incident and would like to come in and apologize to her. She said that she was not interested in his apology.

"Please," I entreated, "Allow Jimmy to come and apologize to you because it would be good for him to do so."

"No, I'm just not interested," she repeated.

This incident is an example of how some businesses regard homeless patrons as different from their housed patrons. I can use myself as an example. Every day for over two years, I have been walking several miles in the morning. On my way home from my exercise route, I always reward myself for my efforts by buying a cup of coffee in my local convenience store.

At my convenience store, the manager often greets me by name when I enter and the sales people are always friendly to me during my stay in their store. I am treated with respect and as an individual. I don't feel like a "they."

Could it be that homeless people, as was the case for Jimmy, are not seen as individuals? I guess I've written this piece in hopes of reminding all of us that homeless people are people, too.

I look forward to your comments. Thank you.