Eric was homeless for more than 10 years in Seattle. A lifelong alcoholic, he’d spend his days outside a Starbucks store in north Seattle, along a busy stretch of highway notorious for crime. He’d use the free WIFI and chat with the store manager, Ryan Butler, when he stepped out during breaks.
“He was cool with me, he’d talk to me, gave me some coffee a couple times,” Eric recalls. “Starbucks is one of the few places you can go when you’re on the street, and they don’t chase you away.”
Through an innovative partnership called the Starbucks Outreach Worker program – that connects Starbucks stores across the country with local organizations focused on homelessness – Butler was able to refer Eric to a social worker named Denver Hanson, the Starbucks outreach worker with Catholic Community Services in Seattle.
During weekly meetings over an eight-month period, Hanson helped Eric get identification and apply for housing, tracking down hard-to-find documents he needed from out of state. In January, Eric moved off the streets, into his own apartment.
The Starbucks Outreach Worker Program, which launched in 2020 and recently expanded into its eighth U.S. city, is a unique partnership between Starbucks and nonprofits that have street outreach expertise. The goal is to support retail partners (employees) while also addressing societal issues like homelessness, mental health and substance use disorder. The program was designed in response to partners sharing the challenges they face in high complexity markets. It’s currently in in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Philadelphia, Chicago and Denver.
In each city, outreach workers dedicated to the program regularly visit Starbucks stores in high-incident areas (for example, near a homeless encampment). They walk around the nearby neighborhood and engage people who are marginalized or at-risk – identifying and responding to immediate needs, making referrals and trying to build long-term relationships. They check in with store partners to help address issues on the spot (if there was a shoplifting incident, for example, or if someone is not getting out of the bathroom) and follow up with the homeless customers they already know, who might be nearby.
In some cities, they also design curriculum and training experiences with Starbucks leaders and store partners around issues like mental and behavioral health and crisis de-escalation.
Nationwide, outreach workers through the program have engaged approximately 16,000 people experiencing homelessness. Of those, about 3,000 have been referred into a “stabilizing program” such as transitional housing, mental health resources or case management.
Meeting customers’ needs with empathy and compassion
Starbucks often is used by many customers as their third place – the place they go that’s not their home or work – but “we know many of our customers who are homeless use Starbucks as their first place,” says Julissa McWashington, Starbucks social impact manager overseeing the program. “And we know that partners who wear the green apron want to meet the needs of their customers with empathy and compassion.
“So how might we support Starbucks partners, and also connect our customers to critical need resources, and positively impact our communities?… It’s the responsibility of us all to hold hands and figure out how to do this collectively. We’re all one community. The public and private sector can do more together and do it in a way where we’re thinking about the person and the human behind all of this.”
Expanding partnerships is key. Starbucks is working with Arizona State University to help scale and evolve the Outreach Worker program – by testing out new organizational structures, engaging in policy advocacy and developing broader, industry-wide training and curriculum opportunities.
Bringing public and private advocates together
In June, Starbucks also held two “convenings,” in Seattle and New York City, bringing together dozens of key stakeholders to meet in the same space and talk frankly about homelessness – police departments, public libraries, boots-on-the-ground outreach organizations, elected officials, philanthropic funders and other companies. Two more convenings are planned for later this year in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
One of the featured panelists at the New York convening was Carley Medley with Breaking Ground, a homeless outreach organization which also runs the largest supportive housing program in the country. As an outreach supervisor, she and her team are responsible for checking in and around 15 Starbucks stores throughout Manhattan, focusing especially on several n Midtown. Daily, she crisscrosses a different kind of overlay map than the usual tourist-oriented spots nearby.
On a recent summer day, next to a methadone clinic near Times Square, across the street from a Starbucks, she gives socks to a man she recognizes – recently discharged from a hospital, stitches still fresh in his head – and asks about the status of a transitional housing application he was working on.
At a subway stop near Madison Square Garden, a man recognizes her green Breaking Ground jacket and says he needs detox, rehab and shelter. She takes his information – where he hangs out, what kinds of services he’s used before, what hospitals he’s gone to – and then makes plans to take him to a temporary shelter.
Earlier in the day, next to a church shelter nearby, she did her weekly check in with a woman in her 60s, who’s in a wheelchair. She brought some ointment for the woman’s leg injury and lent her a cell phone to call a family member.
“Getting to know our clients is a good portion of my day, getting to know their stories, building those relationships,” Medley says. “I just want to be helpful, getting somebody a shirt or shoes, getting people connected with substance abuse programs, treatment programs, counseling, transitional housing. This is impactful, even though the problem is still huge.
“Some of these clients have been in the system their entire lives,” she says. “Everyone is a person. Everyone has a story. Whether or not it’s similar to yours, we need to be a little more empathetic and understanding.”
‘We are a people business’
Eric, the formerly homeless man in Seattle, is thankful for that kind of perspective and effort, and for the program.
“I almost gave up,” Eric says. “Somebody stole my backpack, and it had my birth certificate that I’d just got (that he needed for his state-issued identification application). I was crushed. I wanted to give up. It was gone, and Denver was like, ‘We’ll get it again. Let’s keep doing this.’ Because of this program, I was able to get my ID, and an apartment. I’m super grateful.”
Butler, the Starbucks store manager who first referred Eric, still meets with him occasionally at a public library near his store.
“We are a people business, and the coffee is secondhand,” Butler says. “If we don’t take the time to acknowledge the community’s needs and give back to the community, then why are we here?”