Kindness: So Little Left

THE CHAPMAN REPORT--She watched him for five minutes, the man with his dog sitting outside on a Starbucks patio, on a bitter cold day in Napa. No one else was there.   

‘He wasn’t bothering anybody,’ she said. He didn’t ask for money. He didn’t stand in front of retail doors. He was just sitting quietly and she was fairly sure he was homeless, cold and hungry. In a snap decision, she bought him a bowl of sweet and sour chicken with noodles from the next door Panda King to brighten the man’s day. 

It was meant to be a cup of kindness, but for her, it wound up more like a slap in the face. The man accepted the food, blessed her and said how very grateful he was that someone recognized his plight. 

The trouble came afterward, when Jen – whose much more like my daughter than my friend – walked into the Starbucks to order a cup of java so she could study for school. Jen, 33, had recently moved up from Bakersfield where she worked at a popular bakery and had since successfully broken into the Napa food industry. Originally, she was from Los Angeles and quite familiar with the fact that the county has nearly 47,000 homeless and in her mind such folks deserved at the very least food. It appears voters in the city of Los Angeles—where the homeless population has surged and poured onto our streets and sidewalks and neighborhoods – agreed something must done. In November, voters approved a $1.2 billion measure to build homeless housing … way over the margin of votes that were necessary.  

So, she didn’t really expect what happened next when she decided to get a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s. 

As she came forward to order, the Starbuck’s employee at the register announced she really hated when people fed the homeless. Jen’s face burned. It didn’t stop there however. When the employee came out to wash down the tables, the slap continued. When people feed the homeless, the employee muttered, “then they never go away.” Jen nearly gasped with disbelief. It became quiet in the Starbucks and other customers appeared nervous and uncomfortable. No other employees advised the worker to stop and it seemed an odd attitude for a Starbuck’s since the socially conscious company headquartered in Seattle has gone out of its way to embrace the homeless.  

Jen’s face turned red with anger. If you knew the fabric of this woman you’d understand why. Kindness seems threaded in her very heart and then some.  “I knew she was talking about me,” Jen said. “I was offended. It’s not like I was giving him drugs and alcohol. All I was giving him was food. It was so rude.”  

She fed him, she said, because: “I just felt deep inside I needed to help him.”  

It’s not the story Reggie Borges, a Starbuck’s spokesman in Seattle, wanted to hear after he had just returned from Austin, Texas where his company launched an expansion of its “food share” program this month to Houston and San Antonio.   

The program, suggested by its very own partners (employees), donates Starbuck’s surplus food to local agencies that feed the homeless and the company has set a goal to donate all its extra food to local non-profit agencies from its 7,000 U.S. stores. Surplus ready-meals are already served up to the impoverished Starbuck’s style in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Denver, Las Vegas and Colorado Springs with a goal of reaching 50 million such meals a year. 

When Borgess called the Soscol Avenue store in Napa, no employees could remember such an incident. But if it happened, he added, it’s not the way Starbuck’s would want any customer treated, even a homeless customer. 

“We strive to create a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.,” he emailed. “We want everyone who visits our store in enjoy their visit,” and that includes homeless.  

He added that he hopes to work with the customer to discuss her concerns.  

I know some of you out there are howling that Jen should never have fed that man. He doesn’t deserve it. He’s not working. Others of you are probably saying it really hurts businesses and customers don’t want homeless outside stores. I get that. I get that it can hurt small, local business, especially a mom and pop. Because I’ve had a fair amount of dealings with those living on the streets, I’ve decided not to give money any more but I will buy food and a cup of coffee. 

If it’s a small local business, I will typically ask first if it’s alright because those are the retailers that suffer the most. A place like Starbuck’s and most chain retail stores don’t lose much business if the homeless are standing outside. Hundreds of people pour into the Napa Starbucks on Soscol Avenue every day. I’ve seen it. It would take a lot more than feeding a homeless person to divert them.  

“You can’t blame Starbucks for one bad person,” my cousin warned. I agree, but you can give better training and perhaps explain it’s not wise not to reprimand a customer for doing what many would consider a good deed.  

Personally, I’m glad Jen went with her gut. Perhaps that particular day that man was so troubled he didn’t know what to do next. There’s no doubt our streets have become a torrent of homeless infiltrating our sidewalks and our roadways, setting up tents, begging for money and accosting customers looking for a hand out. But can you really blame them? It’s what I’d do if I found myself on the streets. What do you think you would do? If we keep closing our eyes, they’ll still be there when we wake up. Doing nothing won’t work. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research, reported that unemployment rose from 4.7 percent to ten and over eight million jobs were lost from Nov. 2007 to Oct. 2009, “the most dramatic since the Great Depression.”  

We still see the ugly residue of this more-than-belt-tightening time. Many are still without work. 

One day, another friend and I left a small diner in San Pedro where an older woman, shriveled and weathered, bustled up to us in search of money or food. We didn’t have change, but as were walking away my friend turned and said: “I have this half sandwich I haven’t even touched. Would you like it?”
The women quickly shunted up to us and took the sandwich. We turned back to look at her gobbling it down with a look of such satisfaction. She glowed as though she has just finished a six-course dinner.   

So, I applaud what my friend did. It’s time for all of us to wake up and offer a cup of kindness. It seems sometimes there’s so little left.

(Diana Chapman is a writer/journalist and an occasional CityWatch contributor. She has written for magazines, newspapers and the best-seller series, “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” You can reach her at: [email protected].)