West Palm Beach, Fla. - With healthy and tasty restaurants dotting downtown West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Atlantic University students often find themselves looking for food alternatives to what’s on campus.
But on this recent Saturday, PBA freshman Tabatha Le celebrated her birthday. Walking a few blocks from campus, Le and a half dozen friends chose to have lunch at Field of Greens, a popular restaurant on Clematis Street.
The group came across a man lying on the sidewalk with a blanket on top and observably homeless. After asking his name, the students invited Rodney to lunch. He accepted, walking a few blocks with the group. Once inside, they ordered food for their entire group, including their newest addition.
As they sat down at a large table, a male managers who didn’t identify himself by name approached the group. He asked Le directly if the group had already paid for the homeless man, which they had.
“He said, ‘We ask that you not do that’,” Le recalled. “For the rest of the meal I was basically steaming.” She was shocked that the manager had asked such a thing of a customer because, after all, it was their money and the group - including the homeless man - wasn’t disturbing anybody inside the business.
Nonetheless, everyone stayed seated and finished their meal, with Rodney packing his leftovers in a to-go box. He expressed much gratitude towards the students for making a homeless man feel like part of the community.
As the group prepared to leave, the manager called Le aside.
“What you’re doing is really nice,” Le remembers the manager telling her and nearby friends. “But then he told us not to invite the homeless into the restaurant because the man said, ‘we’re unsure of how they will behave’.”
The Field of Greens manager said if any type of mental or physical outburst were to occur, the restaurant would have to call the police. And such incident, according to the manager, could cause more trouble for the homeless person.
Le said this explanation made sense, but she still thought it was rude to call the group out for feeding someone who was hungry.
“When people are starving, you don’t just cut them off,” Le said. “He spoke across the room in front of this man. He could have handled it better.”
After the Saturday incident, a Beacon reporter following up on this reported incident returned to Field of Greens days laters to investigate what, if any, specific written business policies outline how employees should treat the homeless. One issue raised by Le focused on how employees make such determination without seeming to discriminate individuals.
Unfortunately, no Field of Greens management was available to talk that night. Expanding the investigation, the Beacon reporter visited five other businesses on Clematis Street to inquire about other business policies towards customers that appear to be homeless. While all were polite, there was hesitation at answering such questions.
“I think it’s really disappointing how people are instantly scared of those who are homeless,” Le said, in an interview several days afterward. “They’ll be walking down the street and move across to a different sidewalk, or plug their noses. They don’t talk to them. They don’t even make eye contact. They don’t treat them like they’re human, they treat them as inferior.”
An employee at another downtown business, who will be referred to as “Max” in order to protect him from any employer retaliation because he can’t speak for the business, told The Beacon such unfortunate treatment towards the homeless is typical.
“It’s not the people who work there, it’s the companies. As an employee, part of your job is to enforce the rules,” Max said. Max said there have been incidents in the past with homeless people causing disturbances and police getting involved.
“A lot of times with homelessness, there are other problems going on. There are some [homeless] people that come in and are completely sweet, but once they start interfering with other customers, then it becomes a problem, he said.”
In a follow-up phone interview with the Field of Greens business owner, Debbie Lakow was made aware of what happened between her manager and Le.
“There’s been a lot of reports of homelessness [in] downtown West Palm recently, especially Clematis Street,” Lakow said. “The city is encouraging us not to have customers pay for food for the homeless. The city has asked all retailers not to encourage this.”
Lakow stressed that Field of Greens has had efforts in the past to serve the homeless without bringing them through the store front. She noticed how customers often buy bowls of her soup to take them outside for the homeless.
“We love to help out in the community, but it just becomes tricky when you bring them into your business,” she said. “We had someone with mental illness who came in last week and started screaming, and it was very disruptive to the lunch crowd,” Lakow said.
Back on campus, Le understands both sides but this situation remains unsettling. She believes ignoring the city’s homeless population won’t make it go away. In fact, Le believes it could exacerbate the issue.
“If you keep walking past them, they’re going to keep staying on the streets. I think that a lot of people don’t really understand that these people don’t choose to be homeless. It’s not their choice to be sleeping on concrete at night,” Le said.