Wealthy Neighbors Cry 'Not in My Back Yard!' Over Pay-What-You-Can Restaurant's Low-Income Customers

Nimbyism (“Not in my back yard!”) is on full display in the Chicago neighborhood of Lakeview, where some of the neighborhood’s generally affluent residents are concerned about a new restaurant that counts among its customers people who are low-income or homeless.

A local CBS affiliate reported this week that some Lakeview residents have voiced “complaints” about “safety concerns” in the three months or so since Panera Cares, the soup and sandwich chain’s pay-what-you-can restaurant concept, opened in the neighborhood.

The CBS anchor opens the story by noting that “concern about safety is growing” in the neighborhood, and “some of the people who live there say a unique restaurant may be to blame.” Well, of course, the restaurant is at the root of these people’s safety concerns. As one resident noted, “It’s just kind of scary. A crowd of guys won’t let you through a sidewalk. That’s invasive.”

What’s unclear is whether the residents’ safety concerns are founded. The CBS report provides no data showing that crime is on the rise in the neighborhood. Instead it notes that a nearby resident erected a steel gate, and there’s now some trash on a stoop that had once been clean.

That’s not evidence of rising crime; it’s evidence that one of Panera Cares’ neighbors bought a gate, and that someone littered. Did the neighbor buy the gate to keep Panera customers off his property? Maybe. But that’s still not evidence of rising crime, only rising paranoia.

Furthermore, if crime rates have increased in the neighborhood, local police say the restaurant isn’t at fault: “Police say there’s no way to prove that an increase in crime in the area is directly affected [sic] to the opening of the store.”

One longtime resident, Bruce Beal, told CBS that his neighbors are full of it. “I don’t see any more of that now than I saw before at all,” Beal said. “Before it was all relatively affluent neighbors and now it’s a mix of affluent neighbors and folks that aren’t as affluent.”

Crime statistics aside, what’s going on in Lakeview seems to be a combination of nimbyism, racism and classism that’s all too common in the U.S., even as many people who had once been affluent or comfortably middle-class find themselves knocked down the economic ladder. It seems impossible that the Lakeview residents expressing disdain at the presence of poor and homeless people on their sidewalks have not seen financial hardship among their friends and neighbors or experienced it themselves. Nearly 47 million Americans, or 14 percent of the population, now rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. That’s a huge increase from 2000, when the number was just 17 million. And the increase in food stamp use hasn’t been confined to Americans who were always low-income; a significant number of citizens who were once considered rich or who live in affluent zip-codes have found themselves needing to use the food stamp program as well.

But Panera Cares customers are still considered “other” by many wealthy Americans. There’s a reason Mitt Romney felt comfortable, in a room full of rich donors, expressing contempt for the nearly half of Americans “who are dependent on the government.” It’s the same reason the wealthy Republican candidate said he’s “not concerned about the very poor” and keeps referring to poor Americans as “them.” “They” aren’t like him. “They” are moochers. It doesn’t take much of a leap to get to: “They” are dangerous. “They” are ruining the neighborhood.

This sort of language and behavior fits into a sad legacy of mistreating homeless people in the U.S. As AlterNet’s Tana Ganeva reported last spring, homelessness has been unfairly criminalized in many areas of the country. In some U.S. cities, it is illegal to give food to people who are homeless or for homeless citizens to hold signs, sleep or even sit on the ground.

Where the law does not mandate outright harassment, police come up with clever work-arounds, like destroying or confiscating tents, blankets and other property in raids of camps. A veteran I talked to, his eye bloody from when some teenagers beat him up to steal 60 cents, said police routinely extracted the poles from his tent and kept them so he couldn't rebuild it.

Homeless Americans are also routinely disenfranchised by voter ID laws and other measures that keep them from voting, and they face myriad mental and physical health problems that often go untreated. Significant percentages of homeless Americans are youths and veterans. And although national homelessness rates have stayed roughly the same for the past two years, there’s reason to be concerned that rates will go up in the coming years, since homelessness is a “lagging indicator.”

That’s why it’s especially disappointing that Lakeview residents are so distressed by Panera Cares, which actually helps the homeless population and other Americans experiencing food insecurity. The company launched its first nonprofit Panera Cares in a St. Louis suburb in May 2010 and has since opened three additional locations, in Dearborn, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; and most recently, Chicago. The concept is simple: operated by the Panera Bread Foundation, a separate entity from the for-profit company, Panera Cares restaurants provide suggested prices for their menu items, but customers pay whatever they can. The idea is that some customers will pay significantly more than the menu price to help a good cause, while others will pay significantly less or nothing at all. Not only does this benefit people who come to Panera Cares for a cheap meal, it also helps other hungry members of the community, since the restaurant also donates to anti-hunger charities.

If you’re skeptical that an honor system like that would ever work, you’ll be happy to know that your suspicions about humanity (at least this specific slice of humanity) are wrong. Almost right from the start, the pilot location saw positive results. One month after it opened, Panera chairman Ronald Shaich said, “It's performing better than we even might have hoped in our cynical moments, and it's living up to our best sense of humanity.”

The concept isn’t new; there have been other, similar ventures launched by the likes of Ben & Jerry’s and even Jon Bon Jovi, which have had varying degrees of success. But so far the Panera model seems to be working, at least for the people it serves. The people in the surrounding neighborhood, on the other hand, might say the restaurant does not work for them.

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