Interacting With the Homeless, Vol. 11, Issue 12

Dear Etiquetteer: How does one politely rouse and roust a passed-out drunk/drug addict whose prone form is making your steps impassable? (I am afraid that I was sufficiently exercised by this that I did not act with perfect propriety.)

Dear Impeded:

Etiquetteer can assure you that this is without doubt the most original query ever received. (Those who would like to test Etiquetteer's mettle are invited to do so by submitting queries to <queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com>.)

City dwellers are more likely to experience such encounters with those who are more compassionately referred to as "the homeless" and with less political correctness (but perhaps more accuracy) as "vagrants." Your interest in asking how to interact politely in such a situation shows the conflict between wanting to recognize the dignity of our common humanity, anger at trespassing on your property, fear of becoming too greatly involved in the troubles of another, and fear of violence against your person.

Etiquetteer remembers many years ago thundering down the interior stairs of his apartment building to find a homeless person sleeping inside the first floor hallway. You may be sure that Etiquetteer was scared to death discovering this situation, especially at a high rate of speed. That person awoke, or something . . . and all Etiquetteer can really remember is repeating over and over "You can't stay here, you can't stay here!" before fleeing the building. Needless to say, this was not Etiquetteer's Proudest Moment. At least Etiquetteer was able to depart. You, on the other hand, are quite literally held captive by the situation.

People can be placed in one of three groups in interactions with the homeless: the Compassionate*, whose first thought is to help; the Neutral, who bear no ill will but don't want to be inconvenienced; and Those Who Do Not Want to Be Bothered, which pretty much Says It All. Regardless of how you place yourself in these groups, your safety is most important. If you don't feel safe at any time, Etiquetteer encourages you to call local law enforcement. But be prepared for them not to make your call an immediate priority.

Your first move in this interaction should be courteous but authoritative. Based on your description, you will have to jostle this person with the door gently, but with increasing firmness, frequency, and calls of "Excuse me please," and/or "I'm sorry, you can't stay here," until they are conscious. They will then either leave, or try to engage you in conversation. How you choose to react to that will depend entirely on into which of the three groups you belong. But if it's the latter two, Etiquetteer encourages you not to give way to temper and merely repeat and repeat "I'm sorry, I can't help you. Please leave." If you are in a hurry, Etiquetteer must tell you to resign yourself to being late.

If you wish, provide information about resources available to the homeless in your community. (It helps to have this handy; Etiquetteer does not like to think of this being a frequent occurrence in your neighborhood, but if so, you might consider compiling such information into a card or brochure.)

Etiquetteer will conclude by noting that there are many wicked and anonymous people on the Internet who have suggested getting rid of the homeless by means of poison, bullets, booby traps, etc. Such suggestions do NOT contribute to the discussion. Almost all homeless people do not want to be homeless. The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides much information about the homeless population in the United States, and sobering information it is. If nothing else, this experience is certainly an opportunity to reflect on your own good fortune.

* Christians are taught to see the face of Jesus in every person, and treat them accordingly. Possibly those who transgress against this view should be subjected to repeated viewings of Pay It Forward.

Today is Labor Day, and Etiquetteer expects you to join him in sending off your white linen to the dry cleaners in anticipation of Memorial Day next year. We now return to all fabrics but linen and seersucker, veering more to heavier wools (and velvet for the ladies) as the temperature plunges. Etiquetteer welcomes your queries about What to Wear with Perfect Propriety at <queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com>.