I fell in love with the Tate Street strip adjacent to UNCG almost 10 years ago during a conversation with the Rev. Charlie Hawes, an Episcopal priest who was then the rector at St. Mary’s House in Greensboro.
Charlie, who later co-officiated my wedding, told me that he felt at home ministering to people on Tate Street because it was the kind of countercultural community that Jesus would have felt comfortable in. Tate Street was populated with homeless people, addicts, artists and misfits of all kinds, along with a revolving crop of students, professors and post-collegiate hangers-on.
I am frequently reminded in the gospel that Jesus was homeless and unemployed — both, apparently, by choice. He also didn’t seem to have much respect for private property, if the story in Matthew about Jesus instructing his disciples to take a donkey and a colt for his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem is to be believed.
Charlie often said that he felt that St. Mary’s House had an obligation to open its doors to homeless people, considering that, as a church, it is exempt from paying property taxes and doing its part to support the social safety net.
For about three years, my friends and I in Food Not Bombs prepared meals and shared them with homeless people at St. Mary’s House before the relationship frayed and Food Not Bombs relocated to Glenwood. But while we served food from St. Mary’s House, our presence antagonized the merchants on Tate Street, who saw us as a magnet for aggressive beggars. Understandably, merchants worry that begging will drive away customers. Most beggars are gentle and respectful when their request for alms is declined, but there’s a surly subset that give the entire class a bad name.
The tension between compassion and commercial viability came to a head in late July in downtown Winston-Salem when the owner of Mooney’s Mediterranean Café refused to sell food to a woman who wanted to treat a homeless man to a meal.
For whatever reason, the block of West Fourth Street between Trade and Liberty streets has long attracted down-on-their luck individuals who rest on the benches and ask passersby for money, sometimes not so gracefully.
Since opening on the corner Liberty Street five and a half years ago, Mooney’s has established itself as a bulwark at the eastern end of the celebrated West Fourth Street restaurant row, cultivating a loyal base of customers with amazing food and thoughtful service.
A clash was probably inevitable, and as gentrification consolidates in downtown Winston-Salem through the development of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter and Bailey Power Plant a couple blocks to the east, the squeeze against the poor is likely to intensify.
The controversy over Mooney’s erupted on Facebook when Jennifer Castillo, an outreach worker, posted on her page: “Seriously so angry that I am shaking in tears! They literally told me I can’t buy food from their restaurant if it is going to someone that is homeless because they don’t support people that don’t want jobs! Like it was my treat, I was offering this man (who happens to be a veteran) didn’t ask for anything, I just struck up a conversation with him because I have an open housing spot for a homeless veteran.”
A response came quickly on Mooney’s Facebook page, prefaced by an explanation that the restaurant’s owners make regular charitable contributions to agencies that help the poor.
“We have a very firm position on panhandling,” the Mooney’s post read. “We believe that giving money or food to panhandlers discourages many from seeking the services that are in place to address their specific needs. Many of these services are located downtown. As a business, we also have a responsibility to our customers and employees to maintain a safe and professional environment. For these reasons, we respectfully discourage customers from giving food or money to anyone with whom they are not personally acquainted.”
Some who commented on the various threads that have spread like kudzu vowed to stop eating Mooney’s. Several business owners and downtown supporters, bristling at what they viewed as an unwarranted attack on a stand-up colleague, rallied behind Mooney’s and pledged their continued patronage.
No one, to my knowledge, has promoted an organized boycott against Mooney’s, which would be foolish and counterproductive. It would benefit no one for a restaurant to close and leave another vacant storefront on what is already a struggling block.
But it’s also worth noting that we vote with our scarce discretionary income, and try to spend our dollars with businesses that share our values. Many of us who have befriended homeless people will find it hard to feel welcome at a place where our friends are not welcome.
It’s perfectly reasonable for any merchant to ban begging in front of their establishment and to discourage customers from giving money to beggars. But there are nuances of individual circumstance that do not fit neatly into a blanket rule.
Homeless people, addicts, veterans struggling to repair their psyches from the ravages of war, ex-offenders trying to reenter society — they are members of our families. Rather than shunt them aside, we do better when we work to repair the wounds in our society. Sharing a meal is one of the oldest sacraments of social repair known to humanity.
Maybe Mooney’s should reconsider its policy.