Balancing sympathy with responsibility

Illustration by Steck Von

Caitlin Barbieri
Opinions Editor

As a self-proclaimed “foodie town,” Richmond knows its cuisine — Richmonders love their restaurants and restaurant owners love Richmonders, but not all of them.

Restaurant owners all over the city struggle with the dilemma of people experiencing homelessness coming into their businesses. Some just want water or need to use the restroom, but others heckle customers for food or try to use the private restroom as a shower.    

Regardless of why they come into a restaurant, it is crucial for business owners to have a policy in place for interacting with all kinds of people in need. This policy needs to lay out clear employee guidelines that respect the humanity of these individuals while also valuing customer and employee experiences.

This is not an easy conversation to have. The issue of people experiencing homelessness coming into restaurants is delicate because it makes people who have homes uncomfortable. Individuals not experiencing homelessness feel uneasy when they sit on a restaurant patio and a panhandler comes by asking for food or money. Similarly, restaurant employees feel uncomfortable when a person experiencing homelessness comes in asking for water and then sits in the foyer drinking the water, continually asking for more.

It is perfectly understandable not wanting people experiencing homelessness in your place of business, but you have to be prepared for when they inevitably come in. If a business is unwilling to offer services to these people in need, it needs to be able to inform those people of where they can go to receive those services.

If they want a glass of water, give them a to-go cup and politely ask them to enjoy water outside the restaurant. If they want to use the bathroom but restrooms are for customers only, be prepared with a piece of paper informing them of where the nearest public restrooms are.

That handout should also have information and directions for local facilities offering resources for people experiencing homelessness.

As a hostess, I understand it is difficult to tell a person experiencing homelessness “no” or to ask them to leave. However, instead of sending them away, give them resources. Even if they already know about those resources, it is important that a restaurant be prepared to help in any way they can.

According to data collected in January 2018 by Homeward — a regional planning and support organization that works to end the city’s homelessness — approximately 600 people are experiencing homelessness in Richmond. These people are part of the Richmond community, just like anyone else. They don’t have to be accommodated at the expense of a restaurant’s employee or guest, but they should be respected.  

No one wants to end up like the former manager at Mellow Mushroom, who was caught on camera asking a panhandler to leave the restaurant after a customer bought him food. That incident occurred because the manager was frustrated with panhandlers heckling customers. When customers buy food for panhandlers, it causes the panhandlers to continue visiting the restaurant in hopes that someone else will buy them food.

While buying food for someone in need is a respectable and gracious act, it has a negative impact on the business. Once one panhandler starts to frequent a business, more panhandlers will follow suit very quickly.

This became such a problem at Carytown’s Mellow Mushroom that the manager got frustrated and started asking the homeless to leave. However, she did so in the middle of a hail storm, and that was why she received so much public ridicule.

When a customer buys food for a panhandler, a manager should request the order be made to-go so the panhandler does not think of heckling as a completely successful venture.

This issue is sensitive and it can cause great frustration for business owners and managers. If a business has policies and protocols in place that are respectful they can avoid public ridicule and be a positive part of the community.

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