Do Let Them Eat Cake

Dear Helena,

I was on my way home from seeing a movie in New York, and a couple of homeless people asked me for some change. I said I didn’t have any. But I did have half of a big box of malted milk balls left over from the movie. I said, “This is all I have,” and gave them the box. This seemed to enrage them. They followed me for a couple of blocks, yelling obscenities and actually pelting me with malted milk balls. I thought homeless people would be grateful for whatever they can get. Are there some types of food that are better to give them than others? And what is the best way to offer them the food? —Spare Candy

Dear Spare Candy,

It’s hard to generalize about what homeless people want—because, of course, they’re people, and people can be awfully different. But to get an idea of the preferences here in San Francisco, I did some interviews. I offered various folks one of the following: half a veggie burrito, a Granny Smith apple, or a couple of pistachio macaroons from Miette, a posh San Francisco patisserie. Then I asked them to explain their choice.

Laurence Halbert, 52, went for the burrito. Fruit is not desirable, he explained, saying: “It’s not filling.” Some homeless people don’t have good enough teeth to eat crunchy fruit like apples, said Denny McFarlane, 63. Besides, shelters often provide fruit. Or, he said, “I go to the farmers’ market and ask for one cherry tomato at each stall.”

Instead, McFarlane chose the pistachio macaroons. A friend, who did not wish to give his name or age, agreed: “You need a little sugar for the blood.” Often, they said, homeless people can get enough staples to eat from shelters or by using food stamps. What they really want is a treat—like cookies or cake.

McFarlane and his friend also said they’re tired of being offered half-eaten food items with “raggedy edges.” “You never know, [the person who left it] might have some kind of virus,” the friend said. McFarlane said, “When someone gives me a half-eaten burrito, I cut the end off and throw that part away.” So if you have a knife, it’s a nice gesture to cut off any part of the item you’ve bitten into.

You can’t always find a hungry homeless person right when you’re ready to ditch your leftovers. In that case, you can “replate” the food by wrapping it up and placing it on top of or by a trash can. At Replate.org, a website encouraging this behavior, you can even order stickers to mark the food.

Some might say replating is an excuse to avoid interacting with the homeless. But Josh Kamler, the site’s cocreator, said some homeless people may prefer replated food to accepting a doggy bag from a stranger. “Some people on the street don’t want to feel pity from those of us who happen to be more privileged.”

Others say that replating puts homeless people at risk, because someone might tamper with the replated food. But Kamler dismissed this as an overblown fear, like worrying about razor blades in apples at Halloween. I agree. You’d have to be a sick monster indeed to place a “replate” sticker on a poisoned burrito and leave it on top of a trash can.

If you choose to give directly, don’t just dump your offerings in homeless people’s laps. Then you’re assuming that they’ll accept anything you give them, in any condition. In other words, you’re treating them like starving dogs. Always ask the person if he or she wants the food first. Otherwise you could get pelted with it.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

Published September 25, 2007