Nelson: Businesses — Treat unhoused people with dignity

Too often, local businesses try to justify the disappointing ways they treat unhoused members of our community as being advantageous to their bottom line. However, the true intent behind these policies — formalized or not — is to minimize the presence of unhoused people in our shops and stores.

The unfortunate reality is that people experiencing homelessness are frequently criminalized for simply existing in public spaces. Just because an employee or a business owner believes other customers might feel uncomfortable standing in line next to or sitting at a table nearby someone experiencing homelessness does not mean that person should be subject to having law enforcement called, or to be treated with any less respect than other patrons.

In fact, as we’ve seen at TGTHR, a Boulder-based nonprofit business dedicated to ending youth homelessness, treating those experiencing homelessness as dignified, respectable members of the community actually makes good business sense.

As difficult as it may be to witness the suffering of less-fortunate others, it is important that local businesses and their employees exercise empathy when a seemingly unhoused person enters their business. Imagine having no home and no support network, to be cold or hungry and to have hundreds of people walk past you each day, pretending that you don’t exist or aren’t worthy of positive human interaction. Now, imagine that despite the unfortunate circumstances you’re faced with, you want to sit down in a warm café and drink a cup of coffee. You have the money to pay for it, but you’re denied service or asked to leave the coffee shop solely because you appear to be homeless. This happens more than people think.

It’s one thing if a person is acting erratically and shouting at patrons, or using a store’s small restroom to bathe during business hours, but there is a significant difference between disruptive behavior and simply being homeless — they’re not synonymous. As long people are respectful patrons and are not causing harm, there is no reason not to let them stay in a warm, safe place for a while. Those without homes have the same rights as everyone else, and building relationships with those people can benefit both parties.

Let’s say there is a person who occasionally sleeps in your storefront. When you or your employee comes to open up the business every morning, having an established relationship with that person opens the door for a conversation focused on making requests, not demands. Consider asking that person if they need to use your restroom or at least check in with them. Taking this approach can help ensure that boundaries and expectations are clear — and that people experiencing homelessness have a positive relationship with, and care about, your people and your business. Respect is a two-way street.

Today, there is much emphasis on company culture as a draw for employees and customers. The business benefit of treating people experiencing homelessness with compassion is the ability to live by your values. Saying “all are welcome” but turning around and denying service to an unhoused person only demonstrates a business’s true colors — and people want to patronize businesses that walk the talk.

Plus, most people don’t remain homeless forever, so treating all with kindness and compassion — regardless of housing status — can actually help to get them off the streets. You never know if the person you’re helping may someday be your best employee or favorite customer. 

Whether you’re dealing with concerning behavior or uncomfortable patrons, treating all people with dignity, kindness and compassion is the best way to solve a problem — and the mutual benefit is clear. People who are experiencing homelessness are just that — people. Treating them with the respect they deserve makes good business and human sense. 

Chris Nelson is the CEO of TGTHR, a nonprofit business dedicated to ending youth homelessness. By providing a place to live, access to education, employment, wellness and a supportive community, TGTHR creates opportunities for young people in our community to exit homelessness and thrive.