Last Thanksgiving, Westword's cover story focused on Ed, an employee at the 16th Street Mall McDonald's, whose acts of kindness served as a literal lifeline to members of the local homeless community, including a young man we called Joe, whose paranoid schizophrenia usually made him unwilling to accept help.
Now, however, Ed himself is technically homeless — he's staying with a friend as he seeks a more permanent housing solution — and out of a job. After he was stabbed in the chest by an unruly man outside the restaurant last month, he was fired. Also gone is Mike, a co-worker of Ed's who'd assisted him in efforts to help nourish and clothe the hungry and cold folks drawn to the business.
Was the attention generated by the story a factor in their dismissals? A statement supplied by the McDonald's corporate communication staff on behalf of John Ritchey, the eatery's owner-operator, implies otherwise.
"McDonald’s is still very active and committed within the Denver-area and strive to build our communities through our outreach programs," Ritchey is quoted as saying. "As a result, we see our crew move restaurant locations and/or continue to build their careers elsewhere."
When the same question is put to Ed, he replies, "I don't think so. But you never know."
Ed's title at the 16th Street Mall McDonald's, where he'd worked since mid-2018, was ambassador, and he took it seriously.
He was tasked with security functions, such as making sure that customers actually purchased something and didn't linger for more than thirty minutes after doing so. He also enforced the restaurant's no-bags policy, put in place because homeless individuals would sometimes bring multiple containers filled with their belongings inside with them.
But beyond their normal duties, Ed and Mike (who didn't respond to Westword's interview request) gave away warm clothing to homeless people dressed too lightly for the weather and otherwise tried to assist those in the most need. That included Joe, whose mother purchased winter garb and food cards for him that the pair quietly passed along. Just as important, they kept in regular touch with her so she knew that her precious but troubled boy, who'd already fallen through so many social safety nets, was warm and fed.
According to Ed, his story inspired generosity from a wide range of individuals and organizations, who dropped off clothing in growing amounts that seemed to irritate the restaurant's management. "When I would get to work sometimes, all the things would be in the trash already," he says. "Brand-new stuff would be in the dumpster, and I would literally have to go dumpster-diving to salvage things before it was too late."
Word of the efforts by Ed and Mike also circulated among the homeless who congregate on the 16th Street Mall, with even more of them heading to the McDonald's than previously. Joe's mother heard these gatherings were flagged by the Downtown Denver Partnership, which instituted a new security plan in 2016 to combat the area's unwanted reputation as a magnet for homelessness, drugs and crime. But DDP president and CEO Tami Door denies that, telling Westword the organization has had no conversations with the restaurant's ownership about the issue.
Meanwhile, Ed reveals that "when the article first came out, it was a little sketchy with management. I told them, 'It really doesn't have anything to do with the business. It's me working outside the business to do good deeds.' And they were like, 'That's all fine and dandy,' but then they said, 'We've got to keep these people out of here.'"
At the same time, Ed contends that simple measures capable of preventing some problems weren't taken. For instance, he says he suggested that the bathrooms be kept locked until a customer requested to use them after a number of unfortunate situations. "Heroin, meth, marijuana, you name it: People would go in the bathrooms and use it," he recalls. "I found people masturbating in the stalls or women in there buck naked, shaving and showering and washing clothes in the sink." Nonetheless, the restrooms stayed unlocked, putting him in the position of having to keep track of when people entered and how long they stayed.
Then Mike left after what Ed describes as a supposed violation that involved ushering an unruly customer out a back door rather than the front entrance.
The episode that led to Ed's own ouster took place on the evening of February 10. He remembers that he found an unattended food sack and asked a homeless man a table or so away if it was his. The man snapped back at him and subsequently said he had no intention of buying anything. Ed told him that if he didn't make a purchase, he'd have to leave, precipitating an angry outburst in which the man brought up his prison record. After Ed mentioned that he was prepared to call the police, the man finally exited the booth, but he also reached into his pocket in a way that suggested a weapon was inside.
Concerned, Ed hurried the man outdoors. That's when the man produced a knife, and before he ran off, Ed says, "he stabbed me a couple of times in the chest, where the deep part of your neck comes in. He was literally inches from hitting a major artery."
That wound and a slash on his right wrist deep enough to require stitches prompted Ed's hospitalization, and he stayed in the trauma ward until early Tuesday morning. His next work day was scheduled for Thursday, but he was told not to come in until Saturday because his actions were under investigation. He was unable to make it into the restaurant that day because he suffered a relapse and had to go back to the hospital, so he arranged to stop by the following Saturday, February 23.
At that time, Ed was given two documents to sign. The first was an acknowledgment that he knew he'd been investigated. The second "was my termination paper, saying I didn't have the right to ask that individual anything, because he was sitting there minding his own business."
To Ed, this explanation makes no sense. "I lost my job for doing my job," he says, adding that he was so upset that "I didn't sign the termination papers. I just walked out."
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Since then, Mike has found a job at another fast-food restaurant, albeit one a longer distance from the shelter where he's staying; he's homeless, too. But Ed hasn't been so fortunate, at least not yet. He knows he's got to get going on the process of lining up a gig, since he was in the midst of trying to secure housing when he was fired and he needs to be employed to make it work, since he's identified as the primary breadwinner.
"I don't know if I'm going through a crisis or a bout of depression," he concedes. "I was liking my job and being able to help people. So I'm trying to get my mind right."
The same can be said of Joe, who's back at home, much to his mother's relief, though he continues to balk at taking the medication that keeps him stable. She's hopeful he'll keep improving.
The other Joes on the 16th Street Mall aren't as lucky. Ed says that to his knowledge, no one at the McDonald's there is assisting the homeless in the way he and Mike did, "and anything that's donated is going straight to the trash."