Just after 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, Colorado Springs police heard of a disturbance at the McDonald's at 207 N. Wahsatch Ave. The official police log isn't clear as to whether an employee or a customer first called it in, but leaves little doubt as to the issue at hand.
"[Employee] stated she was informed by her boss to spray disinfectant and antibacterial spray in order to keep customers coming due to the overwhelming smell and odor of transients that enter," the log reads. "[Employee] stated that a group of people were offended by this and began arguing with her in an overly aggressive manner."
Two of the "offended" were Richard and Laura McClenan who say they were shocked when an employee began spraying along every aisle. "It was a very passive-aggressive way of saying, 'You guys stink,'" Richard says. "... [The homeless customers] just sat there and took it. They wanted to be warm."
Laura, a military veteran who has severe asthma and PTSD, wasn't as calm: She covered her face and ran for the door. Richard, who is active-duty military, ran after his wife. Another couple and several college-age people followed, complaining loudly.
Richard then confronted the employee, who, he says, refused to give her full name, claimed to own the restaurant, and told him, "If you don't like it, you can leave." Upon arrival, police calmed the situation, but said they could do nothing else.
According to Bob Holmes, executive director of the homeless organization Homeward Pikes Peak, this McDonald's has for decades been a friendly place for the downtrodden: "It's like Starbucks for homeless people," he says.
But at least on this day, you could chalk it up as one of a growing number of sites — from the outlawed "Tent City" to the anti-panhandling downtown core — where the Springs' least fortunate were less than welcome.
A tough job
On a chilly Wednesday evening a couple months later, the Wahsatch McDonald's is packed. A friendly young woman, brown hair whipped back into a bun, takes orders with a grin. Food moves quickly.
The '50s-style dining area houses about a dozen noshing homeless people. Bags and suitcases sit next to tables of burgers and fries. Loud, convivial conversations are laced with eyebrow-raising language. The more social eaters wander around, striking up conversations with old buddies.
Over about 45 minutes, employees take several orders from this group, and one from a family that looks warily at the crowd, grabs their order and leaves. The only other diner is a young man, school books spread across the table, obliviously staring at his phone.
A nighttime peek into the nearby dining rooms of a Taco Bell, Wendy's and Taco Star do not reveal a similar scene.
The Wahsatch McDonald's is owned by L & S Enterprises No. 2, which owns six McDonald's in the Springs, and two in Fountain. Brent Louzon, a franchisee supervisor who doesn't oversee the Wahsatch location, says simply that he knows managing that store is "tough, to be honest." Customers, he says, complain about homeless people often there.
Asked for more detail, an official McDonald's spokesperson sends only a written response: "At McDonald's we treat all of our customers with respect and [courtesy]. It is McDonald's practice to call the police if any unlawful activity takes place on McDonald's property or puts the safety of our employees and customers at risk."
Following the spraying incident, Laura McClenan was upset enough to approach El Paso County Public Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the McDonald's franchisee's main office, and corporate.
According to McClenan, OSHA, like the police, said this just wasn't its department. An upper-level manager in McDonald's sent Richard (not Laura) a letter that included an apology, assurance that she would follow up with employees, and two coupons. "Your call serves as a valuable reminder that our customers are our number-one priority," it reads, in part.
Reached by the Independent, Public Health employees note they actually received two complaints about the spraying incident, that they contacted McDonald's in response, and have received no further complaints. If a second incident unfolded, employees say, they would look further into whether the spraying could be a code violation.
A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson says that no specific state rules address the spraying of disinfectant in a dining room.
Laura says an insurance adjuster, representing McDonald's, also called her. She says she refused to discuss the issue, because she wasn't interested in money. Laura has a frequently homeless adult daughter who suffers from severe mental illness, and says she simply wants McDonald's staff to treat homeless people more kindly.
She's particularly perturbed because this isn't the first time she's complained. More than a year ago, she sent another complaint to the restaurant manager. In that Oct. 20, 2011 letter, Laura noted that while most McDonald's employees and managers were courteous to customers, a manager had told her, and others, that there was a limited time they could stay in the dining room. She also ignored customers at the counter, and even booted people out, including a gentle veteran in his 80s.
"People say, 'Well, this is a very rough McDonald's because it's downtown,'" Laura says. "OK, rough? Rough why? Because we have all these homeless people who come here? You know what? It looks like the homeless people are buying a lot of the food. And the homeless people, they have a right to eat, too."
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