James and the mystery of homeless discrimination

Aura Barrera/Staff

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Most of the time when we think about homeless people, we just assume that businesses don’t like them because they don’t have the money to pay for goods and services. There was one particular homeless encounter, however, that made me question whether or not the lack of money is really the main reason businesses discriminate against homeless people; this was when I met James Bustamante. He was right outside of the McDonald’s near the west side of UC Berkeley and told me that he wanted a coffee, so I offered to buy one for him if he told me about himself. I made this offer due to my expectation that the cost of coffee was low. Since I consider myself a stingy person when it comes to buying presents for others, I make the excuse to myself that when giving gifts, it’s the thought that counts and not how much the gift costs.

I’d never had coffee before — the closest experience I had was drinking Coca-Cola out of a coffee cup in a hotel room because those were the only cups that were available. I didn’t know how much the coffee would cost, but fortunately for me, it only cost $1.09. McDonald’s wouldn’t let us eat inside because of a reason the worker couldn’t specify, which I assumed involved some rocky history with James. This led me to believe that James not being able to buy a coffee wasn’t because he didn’t have enough money to get one, but perhaps because McDonald’s refused to serve him.

This led me to believe that James not being able to buy a coffee wasn’t because he didn’t have enough money to get one, but perhaps because McDonald’s refused to serve him.

McDonald’s has a policy against too many noncustomers using its bathroom, which makes sense considering how many homeless people hang out outside the restaurant. McDonald’s wouldn’t tell me the exact reason why James was banned, but when I asked James for his perspective, he gave an unexpectedly honest answer. He claimed to be “on temporary punishment” due to him snatching the cup with all the bathroom tokens and throwing the tokens on the floor in response to the workers not giving him one. It wasn’t a surprise to me that when I asked James about what he found difficult about living on the streets, the first thing he mentioned was how difficult it is to find a place to use the restroom.

Because James was “on temporary punishment” we were forced to have our conversation outside, where James told me about how he became homeless. James’ story began with how his parents met. His father was a drug dealer and his mother was a hippie. Just from hearing that, I could tell that James’ early life story would be very different from that of everyone else I knew.

Although I expected that his life story would be unusual, it was still shocking for me to hear James say that he’d been living on the streets since he was seven and had done so for more than 40 years (he told me he was over 50). It’d be hard for anyone to believe a child could live on the streets before turning 10. Although I’ve seen countless homeless adults, I’ve never seen any homeless kids. James lived with his mother and his aunt until he was seven and then went out on the streets because he liked it better than living with his mom. His father’s brothers, who often came over, were described by him as a bunch of pedophiles. Later, he joined and ended up becoming the leader of a gang while still in his younger years. I find it hard to imagine that any sort of gang would allow kids under 10 to join.

Apparently, his gang was a pretty bad influence on the neighborhood and stole a lot of money. In 2002, James was arrested on suspicion of 17 counts of robbery, which totaled to 2 million dollars. He stayed in prison for about 10 years and 10 months before being released in 2012. 

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Nowadays, James says he no longer commits crimes because he’s bored of that type of life. Unexpectedly, he said that being in prison didn’t have much to do with why he stopped. I would’ve thought that somewhere he spent more than 10 years of his life in would’ve had a bigger impact on him. He said he now invests money in stocks of companies like Apple, AT&T and Samsung and even gave me some advice after I told him what I invested in (I shouldn’t put all of my stocks in one company). When I asked how he invests despite being homeless, he told me that he has a computer stashed somewhere that he brings to places with free Wi-Fi — like UC Berkeley’s campus — to invest.

When I asked about what he does recreationally, he said he enjoys smoking weed and tobacco, while rolling up a stick of marijuana and smoking it. He also talked about how he works out (he does many pushups), which I didn’t doubt after looking at the muscles in his arms.

In the middle of our conversation, one of James’ friends walked up to me and asked me to buy him a large coffee. As he handed me $1.25, I suspected he must’ve had a sweet tooth because he asked me to request a coffee with 10 sugars and five creams. It appeared that he had been banned from McDonald’s like James was, and I wondered why he didn’t just ask me to buy it for him. I ended up just buying it for him with my own money, since I was feeling generous. The large coffee was still $1.09, even with all the added sugar and cream. However, the McDonald’s cashier wouldn’t give me a receipt and told me that many homeless people use the receipts to try to get their money back. James’ friend seemed surprised but happy to get his $1.25 back. He apparently thought I wouldn’t use my own money to get it for him.

My interactions made me wonder if money is really the primary reason homeless people are excluded from public facilities.

My interactions made me wonder if money is really the primary reason homeless people are excluded from public facilities. From my interactions with James and his friend, I believe many homeless people certainly have $1.09 to buy coffee from McDonald’s. Because the McDonald’s workers didn’t refer to specific homeless people when explaining why they wouldn’t let James eat inside or refused to give me a receipt, I believe they likely had trouble with some bad apples in the past and don’t think it’s worth the trouble to serve homeless people in general. While businesses like McDonald’s don’t always serve homeless people, I think it’s better to look for the best in people rather than assume the worst.

Contact Yao Huang at [email protected].