December 7, 2023


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Homeless at Starbucks: why the coffee chain is bringing in social workers | US news

8 min read
Homeless at Starbucks: why the coffee chain is bringing in social workers | US news

On a chilly recent morning, customers inside a Starbucks in New York City’s midtown were doing what you’d expect: buying coffee, warming up, chatting. But one person was moving through the store with a different purpose: she first approached a woman standing near the door, and then another man seated with a cup of coffee, saying hello, asking how they were and offering them gloves, hats and handwarmers.

This was an outreach worker named Thashana Jacobs, and this store was her first stop of the day. The organization she works for, a homeless outreach and housing non-profit, has been contracted by Starbucks to deal with an issue that the company feels it cannot ignore: the number of unhoused people who come into the store looking for a place to sit, rest and use the restroom.

The program shows how private companies may find themselves filling holes in the US social safety net. And it also takes pressure off Starbucks baristas who may lack the formal expertise needed to deal with customers experiencing a crisis.

Jacobs has become a familiar face along her route. Once outside the cafe, she spotted a neighborhood regular on his bike. He pulled over, and as the two talked, Jacobs urged him to head to a local drop-in center downtown – a storm was coming, promising to bring freezing temperatures. He asked for the address and whether she’d be there, and said he’d stop by later. Jacobs proceeded on to the next Starbucks.

Heading past tourists and families bundled up for the weather, Jacobs took it as a good sign that this client asked her questions about the drop-in center; on other days, he had shrugged off the suggestion. But “if people get cold enough, they’ll say, ‘Listen, I’m ready,’” said Jacobs.

In New York City, it is clear why a Starbucks is an attractive place to pass the time. Some people experiencing homelessness say they prefer the streets over the city’s homeless shelters, some of which have strict rules, such as curfews, and shared sleeping spaces.

The process of obtaining permanent housing can be long and overly bureaucratic; the city’s chief housing officer has called it a “paperwork first” approach. There are many other resources available in the city, such as transitional housing, but for unhoused people, retail spaces like Starbucks also offer an everyday place of refuge. That means that baristas, cashiers and other food service workers often play the unofficial role of social worker on the job.

Starbucks began bringing trained outreach workers into its stores in 2020, and the program is active in eight US cities, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and Seattle. Homelessness rates in all these cities are high or growing. In New York, for instance, the number of people sleeping in shelters reached almost 66,000 last October. And the national homelessness rate remains stubbornly high.

A spokesperson for Starbucks described the program as one of the ways that the coffee giant seeks to support and strengthen the communities around its stores, and better equip employees to meet the challenges of their jobs. With this program specifically, Starbucks “wanted to be a part of the solution” alongside non-profits with experience in this area, the spokesperson said.

Jacobs works for Breaking Ground, the non-profit that partners with the coffee retailer in New York, and is part of the team that checks in on roughly 15 stores in the city.

Jacobs and her colleagues work to build long-term relationships with their clients, with the goal of helping them secure housing. But she also serves their immediate problems, whether by pointing them in the direction of other social services like soup kitchens, or simply offering them a new pair of socks.

A woman carries coffee out of a Starbucks store in Manhattan.
A woman carries coffee out of a Starbucks store in Manhattan. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Jacobs, who has been at Breaking Ground just short of two years, is level-headed and warm. Walking past theaters and restaurants on Broadway, she seems to have X-ray vision, pointing out unexpected places that have become escapes for unhoused people – such as a furniture section at a department store – and the locations of resources they can access. There is a recharge station in Times Square where folks can get a cup of coffee and power their phone, and a street medicine van at Herald Square.

Breaking Ground’s private contracts with retailers like Starbucks allow Jacobs and her colleagues to go where the city oftentimes cannot: in New York City, the department of homeless services works in public settings, such as on the subway and on the streets.

That day, Jacobs carried several items in her backpack. There was a team phone, which she uses to take notes throughout the day and share shift reports with colleagues, and which Starbucks workers and clients can also use to reach her. For her clients, she toted warm clothes and she had a color-coded binder of resources, such as one-pagers listing nearby soup kitchens, drop-in centers, medical centers and places offering showers.

Jacobs says she rarely hears “negative stories” about her clients; a spokesperson for Breaking Ground says that unhoused people are likelier to be the victims of crime rather than perpetrators. Yet sometimes homeless people are implicated in explanations for why particular Starbucks outlets have shuttered.

Last year, the company’s decision to close 16 stores across a number of cities came after reviewing employee complaints over store safety, and was in part related to “chronic homeless issues, substance abuse and social unrests”, a company spokesperson told CBS News. A Starbucks spokesperson told the Guardian the company regularly opens and closes stores as part of its standard business practices – but that it has closed a total of 35 US stores since July over what it described as security concerns.

The use of bathrooms has also been a fraught issue. Starbucks opened its bathrooms to the public in 2018, following a dispute in a Philadelphia Starbucks between an employee and two Black men over whether they could use the restrooms before making a purchase, and which led to the men’s arrest.

“[W]e don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100% of the time and give people the key,” said Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz, at the time of the policy change. Recently, speaking at an industry forum, Schultz appeared to suggest the company was reconsidering the open bathroom policy for safety reasons. (Asked for comment, a Starbucks spokesperson said: “We have not shared any changes to our bathroom policy.”)

Outside a Starbucks store in Brooklyn.
Outside a Starbucks store in Brooklyn. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

For employees across the retail and food service industry, crisis management has increasingly become part of the job. Alex Riccio, a national field organizer on the campaign to organize Starbucks workers, says that Starbucks workers receive de-escalation trainings, and some are trained in the use of Narcan, a medication which can reverse potentially lethal opioid overdoses.

In his view, Starbucks workers are “required to become de facto social workers” on the job. (A Starbucks spokesperson said that training hours for its employees were increased last year, and that its non-profit partners also provide strategies around mental health, homelessness and trauma-informed care.)

That’s why the homeless outreach program seems attractive to Riccio – who wants to see the program expand beyond its initial eight cities – and others. CJ Toothman, who works at a Starbucks that recently unionized in Brooklyn, said she would “absolutely” like to see it implemented in her store.

It could have helped resolve a recent conflict in which, as she described it, a customer who had recently been evicted and was experiencing homelessness was barred from the store – a decision she and her colleagues disagreed with. “From the sounds of the program, as I understand it, it sounds like something that maybe could have prevented this beloved customer from getting banned and from it escalating to that point,” she said. For the holidays, Toothman and her colleagues put together a Christmas card and some money for the customer.

Chao Guo, a professor of non-profit management at the University of Pennsylvania’s public policy school, said he found it “interesting” that Starbucks was taking on the role of a referral service – a place where people in need can come to be directed to more robust social services – given that these are approaches usually found in the non-profit sector, not the private one. He also said: “I think this is a great effort to help the community.”

Starbucks is far from the only private company in which stores become unofficial spots of refuge. In Hong Kong, a 2018 survey found that over 300 people were sleeping in the city’s 24-hour McDonald’s, although CNN reported that a majority of respondents “said they had other places to sleep”. Starting in 2010, Panera opened a small number of non-profit pay-what-you-can stores, with the idea that some customers would pay more to subsidize lower-cost or free food items for others. But the concept didn’t work, and all stores closed.

In New York City, Macy’s also partners with Breaking Ground to tend to the needs of the unhoused folks who come regularly into the department store for a relatively comfortable and private place to sit, or to use the restroom.

To date, the Starbucks program, which is active in 125 stores around the country, has led to more than 4,000 people experiencing homeless enrolling in a “stabilizing program” which can include transitional housing, mental health resources or case management, according to a company spokesperson. Twenty-three thousand have been connected with a resource or service.

Jacobs says the work requires patience and persistence, and the ability to read people’s body language.

“You have to get used to hearing no,” she said. Sometimes unhoused people ignore her when she says hi. “I’m big on eye contact,” she said. If she doesn’t get it, she takes a step back.

Jacobs says one of the biggest misconceptions of homelessness in New York City is that nothing is being done. And certainly, the number of people with nowhere to live suggests the city has made only limited progress. But to her clients, Jacobs is instantly recognizable.

Unlike the department of homeless services workers, who wear bright orange outerwear in the field, Jacobs and her colleagues are attired in green shirts and jackets. When clients and other regulars see Jacobs along her route, dipping in and out of Starbucks locations, they sometimes shout out: “There goes that green!”

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