Sleeping on Dore Street, San Francisco. Dan Brekke/KQED
Sleeping on Dore Street, San Francisco. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

A Lesson for the Homeless -- and for the Impulsively Generous

A Lesson for the Homeless -- and for the Impulsively Generous

I

don't remember thinking about news or weather or homelessness or much of anything when I stopped for a cup of coffee on my way into the office the other day.

My route took me past a rather upscale cafe a short block from our office on the edge of the Mission. From occasional visits over the eight years since the place opened, it has always appeared to be a popular spot for many of the young tech-firm workers in the neighborhood. The Wi-Fi: fast. The food: very good. The coffee beans: responsibly sourced.

So, I wasn't focused on much when I detoured for coffee. But as soon as I caught sight of the door I started doing line calculus: How many people were waiting? How long would the wait be? Not many, it looked like, and not long.

The man standing closest to the door when I entered was in a neither-here-nor-there position -- checking out the menu board maybe, or queued up. I asked him whether he was in line, and he turned to me and said he was.

He was visibly different from the rest of us in line. Simplest way to say it: While the rest of us were dressed in de rigueur office casual, this guy looked like he was living on the street, maybe in one of the several small tent camps in the neighborhood. His clothes were dirty, his hair and beard were unkempt. In the dozens of times I'd frequented this joint, he's the only person I've ever seen inside whom I'd profile as homeless.

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When it was his turn to order, I heard him ask how much a medium caffe latte would cost. The young woman at the counter said $4.25. I heard the exchange and without thinking said, "Hey, I got you." The man, whom I'd soon learn was named Eric, turned around with a look of surprise and said thanks. Then he looked at the tray of sandwiches next to the counter.

"You want something to eat? Those sandwiches are good," I said. He said yes and picked one out, a big one marked with a T.

"I don't even know what kind it is," he said. "Turkey," I told him. "It's good."

Then a couple of things happened in rapid succession.

A woman who'd overheard my exchange with Eric materialized at my side and said, "Here, let me chip in," and handed me a $5 bill. I thanked her -- I'd come to find out her name was Alicia -- and put the bill in the tip jar.

Then, before I placed my own order, the young counterwoman said to Eric, "Since he's paying for you, you can't eat that here."

Alicia demanded to know why Eric couldn't sit down and eat. The cafe manager, who was working on Eric's latte, said that was just the cafe's rule.

Strange. I'm sure lots of non-homeless cafe customers buy coffee and food for each other, and I'll bet they're never told they can't stay and enjoy their meals.

"I didn't make the rules, but I have to enforce them," the manager said. "That's the owner's rule. I have to obey it."

"Can he just sit here?" Alicia asked, indicating a bench inside the door. "No," the manager said, again mentioning the rules.

Meantime, Eric was asking me, "Why can't I eat here?" The best I could come up with as a response was, "They don't want you here."

The manager put Eric's medium latte on the counter. It had one of those darling little hearts that baristas make with their artful dribbles of espresso and steamed milk.

Alicia and I walked Eric out the door. It had been a cold morning, and the first drops of a midday rain began to fall. He asked us where we were going.

"Back to work," Alicia said. "To my office," I said.

There was an unasked question hanging there, I thought. "Can I come back with you so I have a warm, dry place to eat this nice sandwich you just bought me?"

We said goodbye to Eric and went our separate ways. Later, I chastised myself for not having the presence of mind or the willingness to ask Eric to come back to my building, where he could at least have sat in the lobby while he ate.

Of course, that would have been another temporary act of kindness, conditioned on the understanding he'd go away after he ate. Better than nothing. At least he'd have a full stomach when he headed back to the street. I would continue on in my existence, with its relative safety and comfort.

A

t this point, homelessness is as much a part of San Francisco as the hills, the Mission or the Golden Gate Bridge. It's something I think we all see and ponder and react to, even if we try to turn away from it. As luck would have it, this week marks the second time this year that local media are presenting the public with an unflinching look at the nature and extent of the issue.

The media coverage is a heroic attempt to come to grips with a reality that for decades has proved bigger than any institution's ability to respond. Perhaps that's why I feel that my own personal response when confronted with need is as important as anything I do as a journalist.

I think all of us develop creeds to live by. I don't mean hard-and-fast rules. I mean the voices and phrases and lessons gleaned from experience as we move through life that may add up to a more or less coherent idea of how we want to live, how we ought to treat others, how we hope to be treated ourselves.

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy. ..."

That's part of my creed -- thanks, Walt Whitman -- even if I believe there's an impossible idealism expressed there (what would Whitman have made of 2016 San Francisco?).

Something else I carry in the back of my mind: the Untied Way. It's a modest proposal from former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll to promote the virtues of giving directly to those in need around us.

I only mention credos, Whitman and Carroll in partial explanation of my own occasional impulse to pay for someone else's coffee and sandwich. But I'm also thinking about the consequences of following those impulses.

The other day, I saw how embarrassed the cafe employees were when they had to stand by a rule that I'm guessing they know is absurd and unfair and was crafted to keep people like Eric out of their establishment. My impulse put them on the spot.

My impulse and the small drama that played out around it also put me face to face with the limits of my own compassion. It seems like an easy thing to render a kindness and keep moving. It's harder to render the kindness and maybe stick around to learn more about the person you're bestowing it upon and what they're up against.

And finally, I realize that the cafe's rule for the penniless would-be patron -- "that guy over there bought your sandwich, so you can't eat it here" -- is aimed at me as much as at homeless customers. The management doesn't want people carelessly indulging their generous impulses. Those impulses make it awkward for the cafe's workers and uncomfortable for its better-groomed clientele. And destitute people roaming the area might get the idea they're welcome.

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So in one respect, the cafe's policy has been effective. There's no chance I'll have a fit of thoughtless generosity there again, because I won't be going back.

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