How to Handle Destitute Customers?

3:45pm | Although I'll never choose a chain coffeehouse when there's a viable indie option, because it was a Sunday night and it looked like rain (when motorscootering is no damn fun), I walked up Pine Avenue to the It's a Grind and took a big chair by the fireless fireplace.

Before too long a homeless woman I'd seen outside had made her way in from the cold, nighttime air. After much deliberation she purchased a coffee and plopped herself down in the chair next to me.

That she occasionally mumbled to herself did not bother me. That from time to time she fell victim to liquidy coughing fits did, especially since she covered her mouth only half the time. As discreetly as possible I moved my coffee from the table in front of me to the raised hearth to my right. I thought about moving, but ended up I staying put and started work on an unrelated story that will subsequently appear in this space.

I was sidetracked from that story to this one by what happened maybe 15 minutes later, when a red-jacketed Downtown Long Beach Associate Guide walked in, then leaned over to the woman and politely indicated that the It's a Grind staff had asked that the woman leave. The woman did so without complaint.

I sat there and watched this happen, and I don't feel especially good about that. I wanted to say something, but I wasn't sure what. "She's not bothering anybody" came to mind, although this wasn't entirely true, as it had been readily apparent that I was not the only one who had been bothered by her presence and especially the coughing (which, I should clarify, was nasty but by no means constant).

Another reason I stayed silent was my awareness that It's a Grind, like every restaurant and similar establishment, reserves the right to refuse service to anybody. And however much refusing service on the basis of (e.g.) skin color does not qualify as legal grounds on which an eatery can eject someone — recall, for example, legal action taken against Denny's in the 1990s for allegedly discriminating against racial minorities — in this case the staff was reacting to their customers' discomfort.

I'm just not so sure they should have. Yes, she was coughing now and then, but hey, you're going to be around that from time to time in public places, where it is often enough the case that people from probably lovely homes don't cover their mouths so well, either.

And yes, her homelessness had left her appearance unkempt, but she was not malodorous in the least.
I talked with the It's a Grind employees later and found that they had acted in response to a customer complaint1 about the woman's coughing (perhaps fair enough) and smell (a fabrication, whether intentional or otherwise). The employees indicated that they did not feel good about having called the guides, but said this was policy.

"If a customer complains," one of them told me, "that's basically the end of it."

Being bothered by the homeless in one way or another is probably pretty close to universal. For starters, you don't have to hold homeless persons blameworthy or somehow beneath you to be offended by the very notion itself: That a country with such obscene wealth allows so many of our brothers and sisters to fall between the cracks.

Less idealistically, you may be spiritually troubled by the sight of a homeless person. Even if I do give the occasional gift of cash or food, it certainly pricks my conscience that I get to enjoy bourgeoisie comforts (the laptop computer into which I type these words, the health care that allows me to seek treatment for a bad cough, the diurnal dose of hot shower and clean clothes that helps me appear in such a way that no establishment will exercise against me their right to refuse service) while fellow humans in my sight go looking for a dumpster and a heating duct for food and warmth. To some degree, even for those of us with what we might call a conscience, out of sight equals out of mind.

Are any of these, alone or in combination, good reasons to keep the destitute out of your place of business, or eject them even when they have already lain their good money down to buy your goods and services? I don't pretend to know the answer.

What I do know is that I like going out for a cup of coffee and a sit, coming in from the cold to read or write or people-watch. God knows what additional sanctuary might be signified for me by It's a Grind, Portfolio, etc., were I not someone with a perfectly good coffeemaker in a perfectly nice home.

I also know that I don't feel good about that to which I bore mute witness tonight. I don't know where it falls on the spectrum of right and wrong; it just doesn't feel good.

1Interestingly, the complaint was not lodged by one of the three of us sitting proximate to the woman.

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