The project, launching this spring in four downtown stores, is part of a public-private King County initiative called Partnership for Zero (PFZ)
Every day, every shift, through the window of the Starbucks store she manages on 1st and Pike in downtown Seattle, Manuiki Welsh Coleman has a front-row view of some of the city’s most pressing public challenges: homelessness, substance use disorder, crime, mental health breakdowns.
She wants to help. She really does.
She knows some of the people on the streets by name. There’s Martin, who used to come in every day and report how many consecutive days he’d been sober. And Thomas, super friendly, who’d hang out with a cup of coffee and chat. Others pop in regularly, looking for sugar or hot water.
“One thing I really try to push to my partners (employees) and those that visit us is the idea of community, and what does it mean to be the anchor in your community,” said Welsh Coleman, who’s been a manager for almost a year. “What can you do to broaden your horizons and go past the four walls and reach out to those around us?”
But sometimes, problems spill into her store lobby, or her store bathroom. Sometimes she has to call the police or the paramedics. It’s a precarious balance of business, compassion and empathy, she explains – trying to treat people with dignity while setting hard boundaries.
“It’s been kind of eye-opening,” she said.
This spring, to help alleviate the burden on partners like Welsh Coleman while also trying to address some of the city’s challenges, Starbucks is taking part in a unique pilot program.
Starbucks will offer four of its stores in downtown Seattle and the Chinatown-International District – two neighborhoods with some of the highest concentrations of homelessness in the city – to a public-private countywide initiative called Partnership for Zero (PFZ), designed to get people off the streets into housing.
Each of the four stores will be a safe, clean, welcoming space where PFZ System Advocates – case managers with lived experience being homeless – can connect with those needing to navigate social services, fill out paperwork and get on the path to permanent housing. It’s kind of an “office hours” concept designed to provide a consistent place to meet.
“For those living outside, they view Starbucks as a community center,” said James Sizemore, a PFZ Lead System Advocate. “Saying, hey, let’s meet at the Starbucks, versus, let’s meet on that corner, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of that. They’ll get a coffee. They’ll know it’ll be warm. It helps with consistency in relationships and services, helps with staying in constant contact.”
PFZ is managed and led by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and uses an approach that treats homelessness as a public health emergency, which allows it to draw federal funds, and other techniques that distinguish it from previous efforts in this space. A centralized Housing Command Center helps coordinate and streamline actions and resources. And a “By Name List” details the specific information that each client needs to move to stability – for example, whether they have a pet, or they’re traveling with a partner, or they also need help with a substance use disorder.
Starbucks is part of the We Are In coalition, which directs money and resources from businesses and philanthropies into Partnership for Zero.
‘Be a part of solutions in our communities’
The four-store pilot program builds on Starbucks long legacy of trying to uplift local communities. In March 2020, Starbucks launched the Starbucks Outreach Worker program in eight cities, partnering high-complexity Starbucks stores with hyperlocal non-profit organizations who have expertise in outreach and homelessness.
The Outreach Worker and PFZ programs are designed to be complementary. All four stores in the pilot will have both programs.
"Our goal is to be a part of solutions in our communities, and we are doing that by listening to our partners and leveraging experts in this space to drive change,” said Michelle Burns, Starbucks executive vice president of global coffee, social impact and sustainability. “Our hope is that our stores and our partners can be a part of reducing unsheltered homelessness."
Other ways Starbucks is taking on these issues include supporting organizations doing the work, like Mary’s Place and Wellspring Family Services, which serve families experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Starbucks is also convening experts and stakeholders for frank discussions around homelessness; in the past year, gatherings happened in Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
And, Starbucks is expanding outreach support into the SODO neighborhood where Starbucks is headquartered, partnering with the SODO Business Improvement Area (BIA), which represents property owners and businesses. This initiative comes as more than 3,000 partners returned to work in person at the Starbucks Support Center earlier this year.
“Starbucks stores are kind of at the front line,” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the SODO BIA. “These people are going to be in the stores anyway, so let’s make them welcome and part of the community and work with them in a different way than them being an interloper.
“That’s important,” Goodman said. “You get to set community guidelines. We’re glad you’re here but here are the expectations we have for everybody.”
Working together to create impact
Welsh Coleman, the store manager at 1st and Pike, one of the Starbucks Heritage Market stores, sees obvious benefits.
Not only will the system advocates work directly with clients, Sizemore, the PFZ lead, says they’ll also be able to offer informal guidance and knowledge to store partners about topics like de-escalation techniques, awareness of triggers and trauma, and reading body language. The system advocates can also help with the right-sized response and resource, so the first call isn’t always to 911.
“I feel so much excitement for what’s to come and what we can do,” Welsh Coleman said, after a recent discussion at her store where the program was introduced to her and her partners. “The system advocates we met were incredible human beings, and the amount of work they do is unrecognized and underappreciated. Taking the time to know the heroes in the city was a cool experience to have.
“Their ideas are really going to help. I’m excited to see what we can do together, and how we can have an impact on our community.”