Sunday, May 12, 2013
The homeless at the door
Every day, a man who appears to be homeless sits on a curb near a retail store in a strip mall, holding a sign that reads "help needed." The mall is in a mid-size town in the San Francisco Bay Area. The man has been appearing for more than a year. He also makes daily rounds to other spots in town.
An owner of a retail store in the mall is conflicted in her attitude toward the man.
"I feel that his presence may cause people not to come into my store," she writes. Several times a day she walks by him as he sits on the curb -- and ignores him.
She has spoken about the situation to her landlord, who has called police. However, the police say the man has a right to be there.
"He is very intelligent," my reader writes. She's heard him debate with others quite articulately over his right to be there. She has also heard him tell people about the abuse he suffered as a boy. She indicates that he also "displays symptoms of mental illness."
"As a human being, I want to have compassion, but can't find it in my heart," she writes -- adding that as a Christian, her faith is important to her and causes her to struggle with her attitude toward the man. "It makes me feel mean when I walk by him several times a day and ignore him."
When situations arise that test the multiple values we hold, it can indeed be trying. The reader who owns the store would like to run a successful business that attracts customers so she can provide for herself and her family. For many people, the value placed on the health and well-being of their families tops their priorities.
Does this mean that their other values -- such as caring for others in need -- are somehow diminished because they come second? Not necessarily, although such situations as the store owner's do seem to be a test of how far she will go to honor her values.
It's understandable not to want someone who might make customers anxious loitering outside the door of a retailer. Still, we always have a right to choose whether and when to give to those asking for money.
This fellow, though, seems to be asking for "help." Presumably, the assumption is that he wants money. But if he is indeed homeless and mentally ill, perhaps there are other forms of help that the store owner might seek advice about in an effort to serve both the man's needs and her own. I'm not sure she can determine the state of his mental capacity on her own, but she should certainly be able to consult with public health officials about this issue.
If it's truly not the time it would take to address the issue, but instead the desire not to have the man scare off existing or potential customers with his presence, then to preserve her values of earning a livelihood and also helping those in need, the right thing could be to see if there's a way to help this fellow that in turn might result in helping herself.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.