Tipping Homeless “Helpers”

Dear Helena,
When we have something to celebrate, my wife and I go to this swank Italian place, only it’s in a transitional neighborhood where there are quite a few homeless people hanging around. One of them always waits by the door and opens and closes it. We don’t ask for this service, and we certainly don’t need it. But it feels wrong to drop over a hundred bucks on dinner and wine and then ignore him. Is it polite and right to tip in this case? What should the restaurant do if some homeless person is hanging around outside?
—Guilty Diner

Dear Guilty Diner,
Homeless people often try to provide such little services, some helpful (drawing your attention to a parking space you might otherwise have overlooked) and others less so (attacking your perfectly clean windshield with a squeegee). In some situations, such behavior can feel threatening, which is why many cities have ordinances against certain types of panhandling, says Marc Garcia, a volunteer at the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco. For instance, he says, in San Francisco it’s illegal to beg right by ATMs, or to approach people’s cars when they are stationary in traffic. Opening the door for restaurant patrons seems a relatively benign service. You’re not clutching a wad of cash, nor are you at risk of being carjacked.

Still, as you say, the service being provided is one you don’t want, and you are not obliged to tip. I don’t recommend donating your doggy bag either, should you have one, since gifts of mangled leftovers can offend some homeless people.

As for the restaurant’s responsibility, this depends partly on the homeless person and his behavior. In this case, he sounds perfectly agreeable. By contrast, Kurt Abney, owner of Dottie’s True Blue Café in San Francisco, says homeless people sometimes come in and grab cash off empty tables or even food off people’s plates.

But Jeff Hanak, co-owner of Nopa, a restaurant in SF that has a homeless “doorman,” doesn’t have a problem with it. He says the guy doesn’t make patrons uncomfortable by asking for money. “He goes up and down the street to all the businesses and other restaurants and sweeps in front of storefronts.” Whether people choose to tip the guy or not, “it’s nice he’s doing something beneficial rather than begging.” In this case, Hanak says, the guy also offers customers a service some of them actually want, and tip for: He hails cabs.

A restaurant also has to consider its physical situation, says Kevin Westley, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association in the SF Bay Area. If a restaurant’s door opens onto a dark alley in a high-crime neighborhood, obviously some people will feel unnerved to find a homeless person hovering just outside. Westley doesn’t see a problem if the sidewalk is “well-lit and it’s a glass door and a highly trafficked corner.”

But even when you feel completely safe and the doorman isn’t hassling you, just his very presence will make some patrons queasy. It’s a stark reminder that we live in a society where some people get to gorge on truffled risotto while others have to shiver in the cold all night. One way to avoid feeling guilty about not donating after dinner is to help those who are having a hard time, even if you do it in small ways. Maybe you could volunteer at a soup kitchen for one day a year, donate to a homeless charity, or just buy a coffee and doughnut for the guy sitting on the sidewalk you pass every day on the way to the office.

Finally, one thing you can always give to a homeless person is a polite acknowledgment. What’s wrong with simply looking your doorman in the eye and saying, “Thanks, have a good night”?

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.