Guest Opinion: Homeless man's dignity rose above malice of cafe patron | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: Homeless man's dignity rose above malice of cafe patron

'Even for a man who has nothing, no one can put a price on human dignity, respect and self-worth,' says playwright.

When I was a kid, poverty was as real as baseball, apple pie and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. In elementary school, not only did you have to learn your ABCs, but you also had to figure out how to trade your government cheese with the other kids before lunch was over.

But our kind of cheese wasn't considered real currency in the cafeteria. Everyone knew that the cheese we ate was for poor people. And every day at lunch, we learned something that our teachers could never teach us in the classroom: The "American Dream" came at a price. A price that some of us could not afford.

And the best thing we could do for one another was to watch out for those kids who believed too much in "hope." We knew that if you believed in hope, you might start believing that things are going to get better. And when they don't, some kids don't know how to pick themselves up off the ground again. They end up using up all their energy believing and hoping.

So at the ages of 5 and 6, we knew that we had to choose between two things: either dreaming or surviving. We chose to survive. And that was that saddest day of our lives. As we got older, the dreamers would tell us that we needed to "pull ourselves up by our own boot straps." But what the dreamers did not know was that we only had one pair of boots in our household. And they had to be handed down. Boots that were either too big or too tight. But we we were taught to be grateful for what we had. Whether or not we believed in God.

It seems as though not much has changed, now that I have become a man. The poor keep getting poorer and the rich keep getting richer.

On a recent day at Starbucks in Palo Alto near Stanford Avenue, a homeless man was trying to get a bite to eat. He ate alone at the table for the physically challenged. He was in a wheelchair and had a physical deformity that did not allow him to lift his head, his wrists were bent inward, he could not open his hands, and his back had curvature so bad that he could not sit up straight. This forced him to eat somewhat like an animal.

He looked like a cross between the elephant man and the hunchback of Notre Dame. Well, after awhile people started to treat him like that. His appearance and actions were so offensive and uncomfortable to some people that it made them angry. I just saw a man struggling with every ounce of his being to try to hold his sandwich and his coffee steady enough to eat and drink.

But the beauty of this guy was that he was one of only a few people in the room who was able to see his own dignity and humanity, while at the same time not feeling sorry for himself. He refused to take free food from one patron and my help holding his coffee.

Don't get me wrong -- not everyone treated this man in a dishonorable way or felt sorry for him. But there was one guy who had had enough. A guy who felt that the homeless man was not of the right status to be among Stanford University students and high-tech engineers. This man began to harass the homeless man and tell him that he had to leave. Even when the homeless man wanted to use the bathroom, the other man claimed to represent the baristas, and told the homeless man that he had to leave.

I watched with surprise as the baristas stood behind the counter in silence. I had spoken to the baristas earlier about the homeless man and they did not seem to know much about him. But after almost 15 minutes of watching this man being harassed by this patron, I had had enough. I thought this man's attack was unwarranted and without merit.

The attacker said that the baristas were his friends and that they were closing the cafe. I then said that this man is my friend and closing time is in 10 more minutes. Then four other people began to join me in helping to defend the homeless man, with one group offering him money as he left, although the man hadn't asked for it.

I eventually pushed the man in his wheelchair to the bus stop, and we said our goodbyes. And yes, he wanted me to push him according to his preference, but what is it for me to practice a little bit of humility so that this man can have just one moment to feel like he is deserving of respect by another human being? Even for a man who has nothing, no one can put a price on human dignity, respect and self-worth. By pushing this man to his destination, I hope that it gave him at least one moment to be seen as a human being again.

I spoke with a sergeant of the Palo Alto Police Department, and we shared our mutual respect for the homeless of one of the most affluent cities in the world. We discussed how he knows that some of the homeless he deals with on a daily basis have millions and choose to live outside the system. We both agreed that everyone should be treated as a citizen deserving of respect.

Lynel Gardner works in Palo Alto, lives in the Bay Area, and is an actor, playwright and filmmaker; he works with at-risk youth. He can be reached at


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1 person likes this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 25, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Thank you.

Odd comment, to my ears, from PAPD sergeant; "millions"? Could benefit from more context.
“I spoke with a sergeant of the Palo Alto Police Department, and we shared our mutual respect for the homeless of one of the most affluent cities in the world. We discussed how he knows that some of the homeless he deals with on a daily basis have millions and choose to live outside the system. We both agreed that everyone should be treated as a citizen deserving of respect.”

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 25, 2017 at 6:45 pm

"Could benefit from more context."


12 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 25, 2017 at 9:54 pm

It would be nice if when people do stuff like that, i.e. act like real
jerks in public, just to mean, someone would photograph them and
post their pictures so everyone knows to watch out for this kind of
thing, and maybe stop his next bullying attack.

People's behavior in public seems to really be taking a downward
spiral, and it is not going to get better by itself. Could it be because
regular folks are afraid and inhibited from doing the right thing?

Of course the right thing would be to give this person some help to
get his life organized and make the best of his situation. What is it
that we seem to be so afraid of if everyone carries around their rights
and dignity and does not feel shamed and bullied? Are the so-called
normal so afraid that they will lose something by being human to other
people and even helping them.

It would be nice to think that this rejection of Donald Trump's disaster
of a health care bill is the beginning of something that we can all keep
rolling - to roll back this kind of thinking and behavior.

4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 26, 2017 at 12:44 am

No good deed goes unpunished.

3 people like this
Posted by Odd story
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 26, 2017 at 10:18 am

Did anyone ask the man where he was from?
I have often read in the police blotter of arrests of transients - meaning out of area people who come here. They come here because this area is perceived as generous- which it is - with a wealth of social services, whether from the government or charitable institutions or individuals. There is the opportunity center, which requires frequent attention of our local police.
Curious: how many Pal Altans have become homeless (owing to whatever: job loss/ no friends or family to assist/ take one in; unable to locate section 8 housing, food from food bank of Santa Clara County Second Harvest, local churches, etc.
Meanwhile, I am offended we are portrayed as ungenerous and harassing.
One might argue we are obligated to assist challenged persons regardless of where they are from - like San Francisco does to the tune of HUNDREDS of millions of dollars - yet the challenge remains. With an endless supply of people traveling here for services, we will never be caught up to the challenge, and this original poster us angry about that, apparently. Sorry, we do all we can. I pay high taxes, have never harassed the homeless, donate each year to the Food Bank, Salvation Army, etc. locally.
I feel the original poster seems angry at me, and I don't appreciate it. Yes, the situation IS sad.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2017 at 12:57 pm

A year or two ago, I pushed a handicapped, unkempt, and wheelchair bound man matching the writer's description from somewhere on University Ave. to Peet's on University.

My recollection from talking to the man during the journey is that he is not homeless. He had taken a bus to PA, and had a medical appointment earlier in the day.

7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 26, 2017 at 4:20 pm

I agree with the author that if the man wasn't bothering anyone - he was just sitting down and eating as best he could with his handicap, he shouldn't have been harassed. People who witness others being harassed are part of the problem if they don't step in and try to help. We should be kind to everyone, homeless or otherwise, whether or not a person comes from far away to Palo Alto for a handout, or not. Everyone obeying the law deserves civility and kindness.

That said, I'm sick and tired of people who are turning the downtown into a garbage dump, and people breaking laws when asking for a handout. I don't want to see a person sleeping on a public downtown bench, reeking of alcohol, surrounded by garbage he/she has strewn around him/her. Everyone has the right to sit on a bench, but no one has the right to use it as their personal bed while intoxicated, and no one has the right to litter. I'm so fed up with this behavior.

Sitting on the sidewalk is against the law, and so is standing on the median divide on our roads, asking for money. Public urination (and worse) is not aloud. Loitering on private property is not allowed. People breaking our laws should be forced to go elsewhere.

I've stopped one of my favorite past times - - reading in the library, because people who haven't taken a bath in a long time are using the library for a place to catch up on their sleep, snoring loudly. I'm tired of complaining to the library staff about it.

I'm not an elitist snob. I'm unemployed and live in a rundown apartment where I can barely afford the rent. I haven't purchased anything new in ages. I give money to homeless who are well behaved and don't smell of alcohol. I deliver for meals on wheels. If I see an injustice I'm not afraid to speak up. And dammit, I have rights too. I conduct myself in a civil way and I deserve to live in a clean, safe city. People who litter, sleep on the public benches/sidewalks, urinate in public, etc., need to be kicked out. It's not a crime to be homeless, but breaking local laws and ordinances is and shouldn't be tolerated. I'm fed up.

I suspect that many of the homeless can't help themselves, and that is the problem. There's no place for them to go. Many are mentally ill. What to do?

22 people like this
Posted by Been in a Wheelchair
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 26, 2017 at 4:28 pm

I have been in a wheelchair for two months to two years at a time, due to severe injuries and systemic inflammatory diseases.

It is EXHAUSTING to wheel yourself around, and it quickly becomes impossible with even the slightest of inclines,

To further make matters worse, wheelchair seats have no cushioning or support, so after about 20 minutes in one, it can become very painful to the pelvis, hips and lower back.

I have always wished that people would be more helpful to people in wheelchairs-- holding doors open, giving a push up slopes, etc. even a a young woman with long auburn hair and green eyes, fairly fit-looking after my last remission in which I could exercise, not a soul would lend a hand in the slightest way.

Sillycon Valley is indeed filled with the coldest, rudest millennials outside of China!

3 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 26, 2017 at 4:50 pm

How does the author know that the disabled gentleman is homeless?

10 people like this
Posted by PaloAltoDoe
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 26, 2017 at 6:02 pm

AS a person who grew up in Palo Alto, I can promise you that despite our lofty zip codes, sadly, some Palo Alto folks become homeless, including a couple of our retired high school teachers (surprise to many of us!). In addition, as a person who worked with the homeless for many years, I can promise you that there are a myriad of reasons folks become homeless, and it is certainly not because they have necessarily done anything to encourage being homeless, or that being homeless had been their big plan while growing up. It makes me terribly sad that people continue to treat the homeless as "lesser than" people. What we need are better services: for instance: mobile shower units, job skills training, social security disability representation, accessible food and housing, laundry, clean clothing and so forth. Services are critical to assisting homeless folks to get off the streets. Thank you to the original author for advocating for another human being. You are a good and decent person!!

7 people like this
Posted by PaloAltoDoe
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 26, 2017 at 6:12 pm

Gentle readers, please pay attention to the larger point here: Someone was mean to another human being for no reason. I think we can all agree that there is far too much of that going on in the world right now. We need to applaud the original author for what they did. I don't care what the status, race, ability issues, gender, height, sex, IQ and so on the victim had, it was very kind of the author to step up. so please don't pick at the details of the original author's writing. Palo Alto Doe.

Like this comment
Posted by PaloAltoDoe
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 27, 2017 at 7:31 am

I'd like to correct a comment I made earlier. I wrote that a couple of our high school teachers had become homeless. I'd like to clarify that I'm not sure whether or not they were HS teachers, and where they had been employed in Palo Alto. I read this in a local news article of a couple of years ago which was focused and concerned about the shutdown of Cubberley as a safe parking area for the un-housed. I made an assumption at the time of reading, which may have been incorrect, and I apologize for any confusion.

3 people like this
Posted by MP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 28, 2017 at 12:48 pm

The person who was harassed I often see on University. His disabilities are great. He doesn't beg. Sometimes he ask - people ignore him thinking that he begs - but what he asks is for his backpack or wheelchair to be adjusted...
Almost no one stops to try to understand what he needs help with - yes, you need a few moments as one of his disabilities is speech...

It's very disheartening to see such luck of mercy & compassion

3 people like this
Posted by Cc
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 28, 2017 at 1:31 pm

The description of this specific person sounds like the person that has been barred from most public establishments in downtown Palo Alto.

[Portion removed.]

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