Approaching homelessness with kindness

Scott Reeder
Posted 8/6/21

Sometimes hearts rather than policies need to be changed.

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Approaching homelessness with kindness


SPRINGFIELD – Sometimes hearts rather than policies need to be changed.

A good case in point is how we as a society address homelessness.

Mark Kessler, an owner of Recycled Records in Springfield, has said he and his brother, Gary, are selling their business in part because panhandlers are driving potential customers away from their store.

“Let’s say you are a 60-year-old woman, if a panhandler comes up to your car, you may be too frightened to get out and shop,” he said.

Kessler said he would like to see the Springfield police roust panhandlers out from the area near his shop.

“Why do people panhandle? Because they are too lazy to work,” he said. “You can’t convince me, that with as many job openings that there are now that these people can’t find a job if they want one.”

During the decades I’ve been a journalist, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to homeless folks. At one point in 1988, I went and lived on the streets with them just so I could share with readers the challenges they face.

My observation: Many end up panhandling to feed an addiction. Also, because of addiction or mental illnesses, some have become unemployable and use panhandling to survive.

Now, please note the homeless folks I’m talking about aren’t the ones sleeping on the sofas of friends or residing in a temporary shelter because of a missed rent check.

I’m talking about those sleeping on sidewalks.

It’s important to remember that not all homeless people panhandle. And not all panhandlers are homeless. But there is a pretty big overlap between the two.

Interestingly enough there is a business a little over a block from Kessler’s record store that is taking a radically different approach.

Café Moxo is showing the downtrodden hospitality.

“I believe in the Golden Rule: treat others the way you would like to be treated,” said Brandon Hughes, who manages the Springfield restaurant.

On many mornings, the café is full of business people, politicians, lobbyists and community power brokers eating breakfast, sipping coffee and opining on the problems of the world. And often sitting among them is an older woman talking to herself. She always has a hot cup of coffee and warm meal in front of her.

“She pays us when she can. When she can’t, we make sure she has something to eat,” Hughes said.

This approach of radical hospitality reflects the philosophy of the restaurant’s owner, Mark Forinash. During the pandemic, the restaurant partnered with Springfield businesses and gave away thousands of sack lunches to those in need.

“At the end of the day, we are all people and we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Hughes said.

And there is the rub. In the American caste system, the homeless have become our untouchables.

They are the ones many folks want out of sight and out of mind.

I’ve fallen into that trap myself. Last winter, I was in the Springfield public library researching used car prices. (I’m too cheap to buy a Kelly Blue Book.)  A man wearing a bathrobe kept coming over to the reference desk and asking questions while I stood there. The reference librarian was patient and humane.

But I became a bit annoyed and thought: Why is he getting more attention from this librarian than me?

As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I knew I needed to check my middle-class privilege at the door. After all, I don’t have any more right to use a public amenity -- whether it’s a public library, a sidewalk or a street – than the fellow wandering about the bookshelves in his bathrobe.

And, hey, I’ve devoted my life to free speech and free expression. Every week I get letters from those who like what I write – and those who don’t. If all speech were popular, it wouldn’t need to be protected.

So, if someone wants to use a public sidewalk to ask for money, who am I to say they can’t? Or for that matter what standing does a local government have to prohibit such a thing? After all, panhandlers have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else in society.

We shouldn’t punish someone for being homeless.

That said, the New York Times reported Monday that the nation’s most populous city has undertaken an aggressive campaign to push homeless people off the streets of Manhattan so tourists will feel more welcome.

In other cities, including Springfield, city officials have pondered doing something similar.

But here is a better approach: kindness.

I’ve noticed that Café Moxo is changing customers’ attitudes. It’s not uncommon for a business person or other professional to buy a meal for a needy person they see on the street.

When approached by a panhandler, I’ll say, “I won’t give you money. But I will buy you a meal.”  

Is that response always embraced? No. But kindness never hurts. And when I do buy someone a meal, where do I go?

I go to Café Moxo. After all, why not help a business that is helping others?

Scott Reeder is a veteran  journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area.