Eating From the Trash Can Editorial: Compassion vs. Business in Seattle

We need to talk about poverty.

The city of Seattle, like many in America, is struggling with the constant battle between gentrification (and its associated improvements in quality of life as tax revenues are transferred to higher-value uses, allowing civic repair, better schools, and the other benefits of wealthy urban life) and poverty (as the homeless or the marginal working poor reap none of these benefits, instead getting priced out of formerly-affordable neighborhoods and herded into ghettos, where blight and urban crime make their lives indisputably worse.)

Take, for example, Pioneer Square, which has recently seen an uptick in average income as the gentrifiers set their sights on “Seattle’s Oldest Neighborhood”. Companies are situating offices in the historic buildings, new hipsterish bars and cafes are opening, and they’re mingling with classic tourist traps like the Underground Tour to create a new locus for city nightlife.

Pioneer Square is also overrun with lowlifes, beggars, crackheads, crazies, and all the other worst elements of New York City circa 1985. Once those fancy new bars close near Occidental Park or along Second Avenue, it is not safe for anyone to traverse the area; hell, I wouldn’t personally recommend anyone walk around there by themselves after the offices close around 5:30, and many businesses don’t stay open any later than that if their customer base comes from working people.

There’s a 7-Eleven in Pioneer Square that is a microcosm of the neighborhood. Bohemians come in on bar nights, sports fans pass through on their way to and from the ferry or their cars from Seahawks or Mariners games (a good mile on foot from the garages, incidentally, but it’s the only way to avoid paying fifty bucks to park your car), and the clientele gets whiter and richer.

And the bums know it.

There’s a little gateway you have to pass through to get into that store, and it’s often blocked by an outstretched arm with a little paper cup attached to it.

That 7-Eleven had about a two-month stretch where it refused to accept EBT (“Electronic Benefits Transfer”, more commonly known as Food Stamps), and the area around the store was better for it. Customers weren’t chased off, those who did get into the store had more money to spend, and (according to data obtained by Mystery Ship Studios) sales went up by over 3 percent (a measurable improvement that cannot be chalked up to chance, and which isn’t explained by economic growth.)

Put simply, chasing off the homeless was a smart business decision.

Which brings up the bigger question…if you’re running a convenience store in an improving, gentrifying neighborhood, does it become a smarter choice to tell the US Department of Agriculture (which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to buzz off and accept debit/credit cards and cash only? There is another 7-Eleven only four blocks away (and Mystery Ship Studios does not have a mole supplying us with sales data there, but it is in the Financial District, a place where business disruption in “prime time” at night is far less of a concern), so those refused EBT can simply go there instead — -it is not refusing them service and leaving them forced to go hungry (indeed, that was where folks went when the EBT machine was down for two months due to technical reasons beyond the Pioneer Square store’s control.)

What’s more, unhygienic, drunk, or drug-addled people are not a protected class (like race/creed/sexual orientation/national origin); businesses have the right to refuse service to someone whose foul smell or disruptive demeanor negatively impacts the experience for other customers.

Even among actual homeless people, there is a class divide; some take advantage of the public facilities that are there to help them stay presentable for jobs (and to keep lice and other diseases of the poor from spreading) and they tend to look down their noses at the crackheads, on grounds that beggars siphon money from charitable people — -more on this in a minute.

Beggars who come in and blow that panhandled money on lottery tickets, booze, cigarettes, and Big Gulps aren’t adding value to 7-Eleven’s bottom line if they’re chasing away customers in the course of “earning” that money. Chasing them off is generally a positive-value move (that sales increase points to this effect, as does common sense if you’ve ever walked through a dirty neighborhood and thought twice about spending your money there.)

So if you’re running a convenience store in a mixed-income area, the point is that if you make it as difficult as possible for the homeless, you’ll do your business a favor.

Which leads to a conclusion: At least in Pioneer Square, the 7-Eleven proved that opting out of SNAP is a smart move, and convenience store owners should do so, while actively refusing service to the panhandlers outside on whatever legal grounds they can gin up and make stick.

  • A side note about giving money or food to beggars: Don’t feed the animals. If you give them money or food, it encourages them to loiter; if their situation becomes desperate, they are far more likely to seek out community-assistance programs because you’ve changed the calculus away from instant gratification toward forcing them to plan long-term for their own survival.
  • If you want to help the homeless, and make meaningful contributions toward improving the lot of the poor and raising them out of poverty, one dollar donated to charities like Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission or Compass Housing Alliance is better for the city than a hundred dollars simply given to a beggar. Don’t feed the animals.

And hey, Seattle city poobahs and especially the Seattle Police Department? Quit pretending you care about making Pioneer Square a destination for tourist and local alike if you’re not going to roust the bums and keep them from turning the neighborhood into a Third World hole that respectable people only go through because it’s on the way to the stadium. They’ll stop spending money and business will dry up. Do your jobs.