ADVERTISEMENT

Homeless at Starbucks: Why the coffee shop chain is bringing in social workers | US News

aOn a recent chilly morning, customers inside a Starbucks in downtown New York were doing what you’d expect: buying coffee, warming up, and chatting. But someone was sifting through the store with a different purpose: I first approached a woman standing near the door, then another man sat down with a cup of coffee, saying hello, asking how they were and offering them mittens, hats and hand warmers.

This was an outreach worker named Thashana Jacobs, and this shop was her first stop of the day. Starbucks has contracted the organization it works for, a homeless outreach and housing nonprofit, to grapple with a problem the company feels it can’t ignore: the number of unhoused people who come into the store looking for a place to sit, rest and use the restroom.

ADVERTISEMENT

The program shows how private companies might find themselves filling holes in America’s social safety net. It also takes the pressure off Starbucks baristas who may lack the formal experience needed to handle customers in crisis.

Jacobs has become a familiar face along her way. As soon as she got out of the coffee shop, she noticed an ordinary neighborhood on his bike. He paused, and while the two talked, Jacobs urged him to head to a local outpost downtown—there was a storm coming, and it promised freezing temperatures. He asked for the address and if she would be there, and said he would stop by later. Jacobs moved on to the next Starbucks.

Turning to the former tourists and families gathered for the weather, Jacobs took this as a good sign that this client had asked her questions about the reception center; Other days, ignore the suggestion. “If people get cold enough, they’ll say, ‘Listen, I’m ready,'” Jacobs said.

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

The process of obtaining permanent housing can be overly long and bureaucratic; The city’s chief housing officer 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 provide an everyday place of refuge. This means that baristas, cashiers, and other catering workers often play the informal role of social worker on the job.

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

A Starbucks spokesperson described the program as one of the ways the coffee giant seeks to support and strengthen the communities surrounding its stores, and better equip employees for the challenges of their jobs. With this program specifically, Starbucks wanted to “be part of the solution” along with nonprofits with expertise in this area, the spokesperson said.

Jacobs works for Breaking Ground, a nonprofit that partners with the New York coffee retailer, and is part of the team that handles check-in for nearly 15 stores in the city.

Jacobs and her colleagues build long-term relationships with their clients, with the goal of helping them secure housing. But it 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 from a Starbucks store in Manhattan. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Jacobs, who worked at the Breaking Ground a little over two years ago, is warm and compassionate. Walking through theaters and restaurants on Broadway, she appears to have X-ray vision, pointing to unexpected places that have become escapes for uninhabited people—like the furniture section of a department store—and the locations of resources they can access. There is a recharging station in Times Square where people can get a cup of coffee and power up their phones, and a street medicine truck in Herald Square.

Breaking Ground’s private contracts with retailers like Starbucks allow Jacobs and her colleagues to go where the city often can’t: In New York City, the Homeless Services division operates in public spaces, like the subway and on the streets.

That day, Jacobs carried several items in her backpack. There was a group phone, which she used to take notes throughout the day and share shift reports with colleagues, and Starbucks workers and customers could also use it to access her. For her clients, she dresses warmly and has a colorful wrapper of resources, like a one-page pager that shows nearby soup kitchens, pick-up centers, medical centers and places that offer showers.

Jacobs says she rarely hears “negative stories” about her clients. A Breaking Ground spokesperson says unhoused people are more likely to be victims of crime rather than perpetrators. However, homeless people sometimes get bogged down in explanations for why certain Starbucks outlets are closed.

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

Using the bathrooms was also a risky problem. Starbucks opened its bathrooms to the public in 2018, after a dispute at a Philadelphia Starbucks between an employee and two black men over whether they could use the bathrooms before purchasing led to the men’s arrest.

“[W]Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said at the time of the policy change, “We 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.” Recently, while speaking at an industry forum, Schultz seemed to indicate that the company is reconsidering its open bathroom policy for safety reasons. (In response to a request 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 in the retail and food service industry, crisis management is increasingly becoming part of the job. Starbucks workers receive de-escalation training, says Alex Riccio, a national field organizer with the Starbucks Workers’ Organizing Campaign, and some are even trained to use Narcan, a drug that can reverse fatal opioid overdoses.

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

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

It would have helped resolve a recent dispute, as she described it, in which a recently fired customer who was experiencing homelessness was denied entry to 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 might have prevented this lovely client from escalating to this point,” she said. At the holidays, Toothman and her colleagues collect a Christmas card and some money for a customer.

Zhao Ju, professor of nonprofit management at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Public Policy, said he found it “interesting” that Starbucks would serve as a referral service — a place where people in need of more robust social services could be directed — given that these are approaches commonly found in The non-profit sector, not the private sector. He also said, “I think this is a great effort to help the community.”

Starbucks isn’t the only private company whose stores have become a casual haven. In Hong Kong, a 2018 survey found that more than 300 people slept at the city’s 24-hour McDonald’s, although CNN reported that the majority of respondents “said they had other places to sleep.” Beginning in 2010, Panera opened a small number of non-profit pay-what-you-can stores, with the idea that some customers might pay more to subsidize low-cost or free food for others. But the concept did not work, and all stores closed.

In New York City, Macy’s is also partnering with Breaking Ground to cater to the unhoused people who regularly come to the department store for a comfortable and relatively private place to sit, or to use the restroom.

To date, the Starbucks program, which is active in 125 stores nationwide, has resulted in more than 4,000 homeless people enrolled in a “stabilization program” that could include transitional housing, mental health resources or case management, according to a company spokesperson. Twenty-three thousand have been linked to a resource or service.

Jacobs says the job takes patience, perseverance, and the ability to read people’s body language.

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

One of the biggest misconceptions about homelessness in New York City, Jacobs says, is that nothing gets done. And sure enough, the number of people without a place to live indicates that the city has made only limited progress. But to her clients, Jacobs is instantly recognizable.

Unlike the Department of Homeless Service Workers, who wear bright orange outerwear on the field, Jacobs and her teammates wear green T-shirts and jackets. When customers and other regulars see Jacobs along her way, darting in and out of Starbucks locations, they sometimes exclaim, “There goes that green!”