Most of us should count ourselves lucky that we’ve never had to grapple with homelessness. Inflicting far more damage than just displacing you, this epidemic can strip away your basic human rights. In the worst cases, people treat you like an animal.
That’s what Emory Ellis discovered in 2015. Just looking to get through another difficult day, his simple meal order turned into a misunderstanding that threatened to wrench away his future for good.
Emory Ellis had it tough. The 37-year-old lived in Boston, though he didn’t have any roof over his head. Emory crashed on a couch when he could, but more often than not, he had to sleep on the streets while trying to scrape by.
One of the 6,000 homeless individuals in Boston, Emory had to contend with hunger and the harsh New England winters. However, he was pretty resourceful. While Emory didn’t have much, he kept a stash of money on hand to provide for his basic needs.
That’s what brought him to a Burger King in 2015. Though he only had a few dollars to his name, he could afford the fast food joint. On top of that, he hoped the fast service would allow him to get in and out of the restaurant without making a scene.
After all, the availability of food is a huge contradiction for the homeless community. They need a hot meal more than anyone, and yet many establishments refuse to serve them due to their disheveled appearances.
Flickr / Doug Bawden
But Emory told himself there wouldn’t be a problem. He ordered breakfast at the front register and slapped a ten-dollar bill on the counter — more than enough to cover his simple order. However, a frown spread across the cashier’s face.
Eater New Orleans
The employee took a closer look at the ordinary bill and leveled a huge accusation at Emory. He claimed that this was a counterfeit, and that Emory forged it to steal from Burger King. Fed up with this nonsense, Emory demanded his money back and prepared to leave.
YouTube / Death Clock Armageddon
Even that part didn’t go as planned. The Burger King cashier set aside the “fake” in his register and pulled out his phone. Unable to process exactly how all this was happening, Emory could only watch in shock as the employee dialed 9-1-1.
Police arrived at the restaurant within minutes, but Emory actually felt relieved. This crazy fast food worker overreacted and hurled a ridiculous accusation at him. Surely the authorities could calm the guy down and confirm that Emory was no counterfeiter.
The Denver Post
Unfortunately, the police weren’t interested in justice that day. They cuffed Emory and placed him under arrest, without even asking for his side of the story. He suddenly found himself getting booked downtown and carrying a felony charge.
Most people would be able to make bail in this situation, but of course Emory had nowhere near enough money. They locked him behind bars while he waited for his trial to explain himself — whenever that would be.
Before he could clear his name, however, Emory had to worry about survival. America’s prisons are fraught with danger for non-violent inmates, guilty and innocent. They have to keep an eye out for constant violence, and they risk getting sucked into the criminal lifestyle.
YouTube / InformOverload
Emory had the good sense to stay out of trouble while in the pen, but that didn’t make the wait any easier. Three months passed while he waited for a decision that could possibly lock him up for the rest of his life.
Flickr / alpinestranger
At last, the court made the obvious choice to drop the ridiculous case. The bill was real! But that didn’t fix all Emory’s problems. The felony charge still counted as a probation violation for him, so his future was very much in peril. But he chose to fight back.
He touched base with Justin Drechsler, a local criminal defense lawyer. Justin eagerly took up Emory’s case, which he interpreted as a clear instance of discrimination. Would the Burger King staff react the same way if a white man had ordered in Emory’s place?
As Justin explained, Emory wasn’t alone either. A number of high-profile discrimination suits recently made headlines. In Philadelphia, police arrested two black men in a Starbucks while they were waiting to meet a friend for two minutes.
Similarly, five women golfers had the police called on them when the golf course staff deemed they were playing too slowly. Emory and Justin agreed that he should take his story public to help force these rampant prejudices into the spotlight.
The New York Times
After all, authorities hadn’t examined the (genuine) ten-dollar bill until long after Emory’s arrest. When you tack that on to Burger King’s irresponsible customer service — he never even got his money back — Emory saw nothing but mistreatment the entire way.
With more than enough justification, Emory Ellis filed a lawsuit against the fast food giant and that franchise owner for just under $1 million. The Suffolk Superior Court is handling the decision, though cases of this importance could get appealed all the way to the top.
All things considered, Emory was fortunate to get out of the prison system relatively unscathed. Countless other homeless individuals get trapped for good in a prison cell. Many haven’t even done anything wrong.
This case stands for much more than just getting ten dollars back. It represents a milestone in recognizing the humanity of all people and rectifying a major flaw in the justice system. Just because Emory doesn’t have a home of his own doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a voice.
The Daily Beast