Cafe by day feeds the homeless dinner by night: The humanizing effect of giving dignity

I am not a big fan of the name Robin Hood cafe/restaurant. But it marks it out as a social enterprise. What's more it's a great idea. This restaurant in Madrid offers--and this is crucial--a dignified and free dinner experience to the homeless. It's funded by the cafe/restaurants paying breakfast and lunch customers. I say the key element is a dignified dinner experience because the restaurant serves its food on real plates, glasses and metal knives and forks. The homeless are served at their own tables, and they are greeted warmly on arrival.

Why is this significant? One of the things that homeless people experience internally is a deep sense of shame. The loss of a home usually comes with some other type of loss to the person or her family. But what follows that loss of security is the erosion of both a sense of self-worth and the experience (subjectively, but sadly also objectively) of the loss of dignity before other human beings. Restaurants are not a place you will often find a homeless person unless of course they are being bought lunch or dinner by a customer confident enough to take them out for a sit-down meal. At Robin Hood, they are also given plenty of good food.

If you have ever served in a soup kitchen, then you know that lines, plastic trays, and often plastic spoons and forks, coupled with institutionalized cafeteria style seating and decor are part of life. In my vocabulary, 'institutionalized' often also means 'dehumanized.' Though they are necessary, and welcome (I serve in a local kitchen), it would be lovely to have a version of this Madrid cafe/restaurant here in Chattanooga.

One Table as a model

I have seen the humanizing effect of giving dignity in the face of a homeless man here in Chattanooga. For the last three years, Causeway has organized an event called OneTable, which is a potluck where everybody in the community is invited to participate in a meal around Thanksgiving together. The tables are set out on a closed street between two segments of our city, one a park where homeless people often spend their day and the other a plaza where many downtown employees spend their lunch break. OneTable is therefore not only symbolic, but it actually brings people together at one, long table. But it's not a bunch of plastic tables bunched together, rather the tables are put together and then decorated in keeping with the holiday season. This year I recognized one of the people I knew from the soup kitchen and knowing he needed help to get seated because of his crutches, I helped him to the table. I encouraged him along to a further spot since there was some fall sun and when he went to sit down, he explained: "You decorated the table!" and broke out in a big grin. Such small things make all the difference. The humanizing effect of giving dignity in such ways can have a powerful effect on one struggling to find dignity in a spiral of desperation.

Of course, we must not romanticize the homeless. There is a reason many of these folks are homeless, and it's often in part their own fault. They are still human, in deep need of honor and a recognition of dignity, love even.

Is the restaurant model sustainable?

Does the Robin Hood restaurant have legs? The restaurant in Madrid, which opened in December 2016, has a waiting list for paying customers going into March. Of course it might just be the hype of a new restaurant with a different angle. I remain hopeful. An NPR interview tells us they have poached workers from hotels and other restaurants wanting to be part of something bigger. And apparently, famous chefs are volunteering their time once a week to cook for Robin Hood.