I came across this meme recently on my Facebook news feed (thank you Liberal Warriors Free for All). I thought is was a great idea and did a quick search to see how realistic the concept was. I found that Snopes had done some research and found that it seemed to originate (or at least gain popularity) in Italy. There was even an organization called Suspended Coffees started in 2013 that aims to spread the word and help this movement grow.
I also ran across an article by the Consumerist titled Why Ordering ‘Suspended’ Coffees For The Needy Is Stupid And Inefficient. This article bothered me because it gave a bunch of reasons not do further the practice. Here are the arguments laid forth in the article and my response:
Argument: The people who need free drinks and food aren’t all on Facebook so they won’t know what to ask for.
Response: The idea is to start a trend, not a short social media movement. It will take some work to get the word out, but simply spreading it to places like homeless shelters might get it done.
Argument: Is there a means testing? There are a lot of greedy people who will abuse the idea.
Response: Of course not. The idea of being charitable is sound regardless of whether or not someone abuses your charity. Doing the right thing is about what you do and your intentions, not the conduct of the person you are helping.
Argument: Coffee isn’t very nutritious food for the hungry.
Response: First, coffee isn’t food at all. It’s a drink. Second…it gets cold out there. While I don’t disagree with the idea of handing out giftcards (an idea the author uses in the article), I know a lot of people who want to get inside on a cold day (especially places like Indiana where I live) and have a hot cup of coffee.
Argument: Try having actual contact with poor people through volunteer work and food pantry donations.
Response: I agree! But why can’t we also make the effort to add a cup of coffee to our orders and help that way as well? It takes no time for those who are busy with work and family and gives someone a gift that could warm them on a cold day.
I don’t begrudge the author of the article entirely. She is right that there are some ways to provide better assistance to the homeless and less fortunate. However, a small gesture like this can mean a lot. Its more helpful than something like the “pay-it-forward” movement (which I don’t disparage because generosity of any kind is a step in the right direction).
Now to the technical problems of the idea…the author of the article mentions that “the cash register isn’t set up to handle it.” That’s not true. The cash register can ring up an extra cup of coffee. If they need to keep track, they can put a simple tally sheet next to the register showing the number of suspended cups available. Or they can place an actual empty cup to the side that can keep the record for them. If there are cups in that spot…there is coffee available! It’s pretty simple. If they get backed up with free coffee, I’m sure they wouldn’t have a problem running a bunch of free coffees down to the local homeless shelter.
On the other side of this issue are the people pushing to grow the movement. I contacted one of the groups leading this movement. John and Shannon obviously disagreed with the Consumerist article, they wanted to remind people that suspended coffees are about a lot more than coffee going to homeless people.
“Just last week, in London, I met a lady who told me she was extremely depressed and felt completely alone. She had been the recipient of an act of kindness through Suspended Coffees and it had given her the courage to face the world again.
We get countless emails and messages from people all around the world, with problems ranging from cancer, to dialysis, to depression, saying that we give them the strength to get up each morning. They come to our page to get their daily dose of kindness so they can take a deep breath and keep going.”
I asked them about the resistance that they encounter from people like the author of the Consumerist article. They referred back to their tagline, “It’s about more than the coffee.”
“It’s about letting people know it’s ok to ask for help when they need it,” they responded, “It’s about letting people know it’s ok to be kind and to talk about it.
To the cafes that are afraid they’ll attract the wrong sort, we ask this. Who exactly is the wrong sort? Aren’t we all human beings? Most homeless people are homeless due to something catastrophic happening in their lives. They didn’t choose it. It just happened.
Some café owners have said they fear that they’ll have homeless people filling their cafés, and this just isn’t so. Homeless people know the stigma attached to their situation, so they often come and go as quietly as possible, in order to avoid causing any problems for business owners.
Imagine having everyone ignore you. Or rather than ignoring you, they only look at you with disgust. That’s all you see and feel all day long. Now imagine one person coming up to you and offering you a coffee, looking you in the eyes, and telling you they see you. It restores a little bit of dignity for you, if only for a brief moment, while you share a coffee.”
To the Consumerist’s article’s final point, John and Shannon reminded me that “it’s not just for homeless people. It’s for anyone in need. That could be someone who left their wallet at home, someone who’s running short that month and just can’t afford a cup of coffee, someone who’s just received bad news, someone who’s just delivered bad news, and the list goes on and on. We aren’t here to judge who is deserving of a suspended coffee. If they ask, they’re in need in some manner.”
It seems that the Consumerist article completely missed the mark. The author doesn’t seem to understand that you can’t take every act at face value. Sometimes there is more to something like a cup of coffee than the liquid in the glass.
It’s not that difficult to start a movement like this. It simply takes one person to make the effort. Others will pick it up. A friend of mine started a movement in his town called Santa’s Lunch Sack. He started making lunches Christmas morning that he hands out to the homeless on the streets of Sacramento. His movement has grown each year and they now hand out hundreds of sack lunches on Christmas.
When thinking about what you can do, take a few minutes the next time you’re in your local coffee shop. Ask the manager if they would be willing to start a tally and allow people to buy suspended coffee. Then pass the word on to your friends. Tell people who hear you order one. It will begin to pick up. It may not change the world, but I will bet that the person who needs that coffee when its cold outside will thank you.
Read the full interview with Suspended Coffees here.
If you need help starting this or want more information check out the movement started in Europe…how about helping them make it go worldwide?!