When Outdoor Diners and Homeless People Meet, Restaurants Try to Cope

As homelessness grows in New York City, owners seek ways to defuse conflicts between panhandlers and their customers and employees, from hiring guards to feeding the hungry.

When Stephen Werther, an owner and the chef of the West Village restaurant and market Suprema Provisions, opened his business for outdoor dining in the summer of 2020, he noticed people aggressively panhandling his customers.

He hired security guards, but concluded after a couple of months that the strategy wasn’t working. Instead, he found a better solution.

“We make them food,” Mr. Werther said. He lets the panhandlers order whatever they want, and each one has developed a go-to: a hamburger, pasta Bolognese, spaghetti pomodoro. “It’s created more of a community relationship with homeless people and the panhandlers, rather than an adversarial one,” he said.

Economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic has worsened already increasing levels of homelessness across the country. And in New York City, where nearly 12,000 restaurants have been approved to offer outdoor dining, reports of diners being approached for money have become more widespread.

Incidents involving people believed to be homeless and restaurants aren’t categorized and tracked as such by the New York Police Department. But many restaurant owners, their employees and homeless-advocacy organizations said in interviews that such disputes have increased as more people have become homeless and thousands of restaurants have expanded dining to the streets and sidewalks.Many of these encounters between the haves and have-nots are brief and amiable. But others become contentious, and restaurants are trying various ways to defuse them, including hiring security guards, regularly calling the police, relying on employees to handle the situation — or, like Mr. Werther, simply helping those seeking aid.Several restaurateurs said the soliciting has recently become more frequent and insistent, and the resulting disputes more fierce. And they agreed that the city should do more to address the issue.A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said his administration has increased the number of beds for homeless people and tripled the ranks of outreach workers since 2014, to more than 600. “Over the past year-plus of this crisis, our invaluable outreach teams have gone above and beyond amid unprecedented circumstances to engage unsheltered New Yorkers, provide them with information on the range of resources available, and encourage them to accept services,” said the spokeswoman, Kate Smart, who asked that people call 311 if they see a person who needs help.

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If there are many 311 complaints, a team of outreach workers, police and a sanitation truck is sent by the city to take away a homeless person’s scant belongings, said Jacquelyn Simone, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless.

Homeless people want access to permanent and affordable housing, Ms. Simone said, a need the city government hasn’t been able to meet. Many homeless people avoid staying in dormlike shelters. “There’s a lot of feeling that this crisis of homelessness is not being approached with the urgency that it needs,” she said.

Ms. Simone said she hopes that restaurant workers can connect with outreach providers for homeless people if there are clashes, rather than using security guards or calling the police, which can destroy the trust it can take those providers months to build.

“Many people who are privileged enough to be economically secure and can dine out during a pandemic don’t want to be reminded of poverty in our society,” she said. “Many people wish they didn’t have to see that. There’s a big difference between pushing a problem out of sight and actually helping.”

To stop the spread of Covid in group shelters last year, the city’s Department of Social Services moved thousands of homeless people to hotel rooms, many on the West Side of Manhattan. Restaurateurs in Hell’s Kitchen were used to dealing with disruptions — they’re near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, several methadone clinics and the pedestrian dead zone at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel — but they say the increased number of homeless people has aggravated the problem.

Over the summer, the city moved about 8,000 homeless people from hotels back to dormlike shelters, which alleviated some of those concerns. But many restaurant owners said they’re still trying to tamp down conflicts daily.

At Tavola, a pizzeria in Hell’s Kitchen, John Accardi, a co-owner, said that one of his staff members was slashed on the hand and his son was almost stabbed in heated disputes with people Mr. Accardi said were homeless. He said he tells employees to avoid such confrontations rather than risk injury. “I’d rather have someone break my table or chair,” he said.

Panos Voyiatzis, the president and co-owner of Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company, said a man he believed to be homeless came into his shop in Chelsea last month, and spat on customers and workers before a manager called the police.

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Employees tried offering the man a bagel sandwich and a coffee, but he didn’t want a meal, Mr. Voyiatzis said. “We wouldn’t just throw them out,” he said. “We say: ‘What would you like? Would you like a sandwich? Why don’t you wait outside, and we’ll give you a bagel and a coffee.’ That’s not as easy these days.”

When outdoor dining structures went up seemingly overnight, Ashley Belcher, 28, who used to be homeless, said people who had laid out their possessions nearby suddenly had to move. At night, she said, they were able to sleep in the structures, but during the day, they were forced to leave.

Ms. Belcher said she had been homeless since age 14, but the pandemic motivated her to get off the streets. Now living in a hotel, she is an outreach worker and organizer at Human, NYC, a homeless-advocacy organization. When she was homeless, she recalled, restaurants didn’t allow her to sit outside unless she bought something. If she wanted help getting food, she would have to ask a customer.

At Counter & Bodega, a pan-Latin restaurant in Chelsea, Sophie Serrano, an owner, said she initially looked to resolve conflicts with panhandlers by feeding them. But word got around, she said, and more people showed up asking for food and money. One man exposed himself to customers, she said, and another walked into the restaurant with an unleashed pit bull.

From July to October of last year, Ms. Serrano said Counter & Bodega had to employ security guards Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to keep conflicts with panhandlers from escalating. The security cost $375 a week — an expense she said was difficult to bear given the restaurant’s sales losses in the pandemic.

The disputes became so severe that Ms. Serrano decided to move the restaurant to a larger space down the block, where there have been fewer troubles. “It was a blessing in disguise for us, really,” she said. “We were honestly busting at the seams.”

Nadine Strossen, a professor at the New York Law School, said a security guard can’t shoo someone panhandling away from outdoor diners because sidewalks and streets are considered a forum where people can exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech. The exception is when that speech crosses a line into harassment, coercion or intimidation; the law doesn’t allow a security guard to act against speech that is merely controversial or upsetting.

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Karim Walker, 40, who was homeless since 2016 and is now living in his own apartment, said people can be ignorant about the law, and how their attempts at enforcement can affect people. “No matter what your stage in life is, you’re still a human being, and you still deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Steven Conti, 33, who arrived in New York City in December, is currently homeless and sleeps in a Manhattan park. He thinks the expansion of outdoor dining has had a positive effect. “Socializing outdoors — it’s more like a party,” he said. “I don’t complain about it. I kind of prefer it.”

The six-month-old outdoor dining structure at Oaxaca Taqueria, in Murray Hill, is a popular lunch spot. But after the restaurant closes in the evening, it sometimes becomes an area for people to sit, drink and smoke.

Angie Cuervo, a manager, said trash and even human feces have been left behind. “I’m the one who opens the next day, and I find all the trash and I have to clean it up because, of course, I’m not going to let my clients come and see that,” she said.

At Tribeca’s Kitchen, employees are instructed to give food to anyone in need. The owner, Andreas Koutsoudakis Jr., recalled a day this summer when a man went table to table asking for help. Mr. Koutsoudakis said he put his hand on the man’s shoulder and offered him something to eat.“The customers that saw me speaking to him, they actually looked at me and gave him money, and said, ‘What you did was amazing,’” Mr. Koutsoudakis recalled. He added that he was inspired by his father, who founded the restaurant and died last year of Covid, to respect his neighbors. “Customers look at this stuff. They do want to see people doing good for one another.”

Mr. Werther, of Suprema Provisions, believes in the spirit of the Italian custom known as “caffè sospeso,” in which customers pay for an extra coffee — to be given to someone who can’t afford it.

He said: “While what we are doing by giving food to our neighbors in need is not technically caffè sospeso, the idea that we are all in this world together and should do what we can to help each other out is the same.”

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