Starbucks Gets Drawn Into Los Angeles Homeless Crisis

Photo: Chameleons Eye/REX/Shutterstock.
Starbucks' bathrooms and free Wi-Fi are precious commodities for most city dwellers. They're perhaps most valuable to the homeless, which has become quite a dilemma for the 400 Starbucks locations in Los Angeles. NPR looked at all sides of this problem, which puts Starbucks in the center of L.A.'s homeless problem.

From the perspective of the homeless (44,000 in L.A.), Starbucks is a safe place to go after homeless shelters kick people out every morning. It has clean bathrooms, as well as a place to charge phones and connect to the internet before city libraries open at 10 a.m.
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Unfortunately, that means extra work for the employees. "A lot of the homeless people that do tend to come in, and they will buy a cup of coffee, they use the restroom as their shower time," former Starbucks supervisor Lester Monzon told NPR. "They'll take off their shirts, they'll bathe themselves. When they leave, the whole bathroom is just completely destroyed."

That might be why a few Starbucks in Downtown Los Angeles have recently closed their bathrooms completely, though the company said in a statement to NPR that the locations were closed for unspecified safety concerns. Though employees were not authorized to speak to reporters, some reportedly told the local CBS affiliate that it was to keep out the homeless. A security guard was reportedly posted at one location to prevent homeless people from entering.

From the customer's perspective, it's not just about the bathrooms. Unfortunately, about 25% of the country's homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, so there's a question of how they might behave toward the other customers who come to sip their lattes. Starbucks baristas have to tread lightly when an apparently homeless person causes a disturbance in the café.
"Half the people that are watching are seeing if you're gonna be a jerk," Monzon told NPR. "Half the people don't want them there and half the people are like, [demanding] more compassion."

Meanwhile, in Starbucks' hometown of Seattle, the company has touted Homeless Youth Handbook: Legal Issues and Options, a publication created by Starbucks attorneys, an outside firm, and Columbia Legal Services Children and Youth Project, which the coffee chain has been distributing since 2013. The Starbucks website lists among its core values, "Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome."
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