Recently, while visiting several different coffee shops in San Francisco, I noticed many of their restrooms have signs on the doors saying, “Closed Until Further Notice.” Upon questioning the employees, they immediately tried to re-direct me to other establishments in the neighborhood that offer public restrooms.
When I asked if their restrooms would be repaired soon, the clerks explained they cannot keep them open because the homeless take baths in them, flooding the floors as well as shooting up drugs and throwing their dirty needles on the ground.
The clerks are quickly learning that a homeless person has no choice but to remain dirty because of no access to baths, and are compelled to sometimes steal food because of hunger, and are forced to sleep when and where they can because they have no beds like most people do.
But the employees still have to remember that their job is to take care of the paying customers who are entitled to a clean establishment with restrooms available.
The employees told me that they often find homeless people asleep in their restrooms and in order to get them to leave, they sometimes have to call the police for help.
One young clerk told me that since the homeless don’t get to bathe regularly, customers in the store complain that restrooms sometimes smell so badly. He said it is easier for them to place an “Out of Order” sign on the door than it is to try and explain the situation to the paying customers who are out of luck in their need for a restroom, and frequently take out their frustrations on the employees.
Often, he continued, homeless people will fall asleep with their heads on the tables surrounded by large garbage bags filled with their belongings and the customers will not sit near them.
In areas of cities with a large homeless population, employees not only put “Out of Order” signs on their restroom doors, they remove the chairs and tables, forcing customers to stand to drink their coffee, hoping to deter the poor from coming in to bathe and sleep.
In the coffee houses that do provide chairs, the employees explain that they feel sorry for the homeless who are often young people close to their own ages, and sometimes they let them sleep for several hours before asking them to leave.
Since the other customers will not sit near them while they sleep and often choose to leave the establishment, business in some areas is declining. I wonder if the employees training prepares them to gently yet firmly deal with the poor people of their neighborhoods as well as serve the paying customers.
The need for shelters for the poor is extremely critical and I applaud the employees at the coffee houses for trying to sensitively deal with the homeless situation, though I am certain they are not paid to both serve paying customers as well as interact with homeless people.
A young woman working at one coffee shop in San Francisco shared with me that telling someone who obviously hadn’t had a bath for days to leave the establishment seemed intensely cruel to her. She is in college and this is her first job, as well as her first experience in dealing with the poor.
At her shop, she added, they have to remove the cream after each customer uses it instead of leaving it out, because homeless people will drink it all. The clerk said there have been times she was not certain if the people are homeless or not, and finds it awkward to have to be the judge.
Many establishments are literally throwing homeless people out of their stores, yet some actually teach their employees that treating all people with dignity and respect is the number one requirement of all jobs.
Theft in some coffee shops continues to take its toll. The employees are expected to police the products on the shelves as well as keep homeless people out of their restrooms and also keep them from falling asleep in their chairs.
That, on top of doing their normal customer service work, seems over and above the line of duty for young adults who are often trying to pay their way through college with their part-time coffee shop jobs.
Watching the rapidly growing population of homeless people, and simply saying “build houses for everyone” is in the meantime not offering the poor ways to bathe, sleep, eat, store their belongings, as well as take care of their bodily needs, which we all have to do in order to survive.
Perhaps the clerks in these coffee shops working with the homeless population everyday are the very ones that will lead us to much-needed solutions!

“Warmth in Giving 2.” Pouring a cup of coffee to warm a homeless man. From a series of paintings by Elizabeth King

Wounds of the Poor

by Judy Joy Jones

today i did see
a man in a wheelchair
all alone was he

ravaged by great suffering
few will ever know
his deeply lined face
showed every tear
he had shed

silently his soul screamed
no longer could he
ask for anything

with no home except city streets
and not one passerby even said hi

i wanted to
bathe his red swollen feet
and spread ointment
on his every wound
for he is my brother
in desperate need

i will try through eternity
to get others to see
our beloved brothers in need

we are one heartbeat
he is you and me