How Starbucks Got Tangled Up In LA's Homelessness Crisis | KUOW News and Information

How Starbucks Got Tangled Up In LA's Homelessness Crisis

May 3, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 1:04 pm

It's about 6:30 in the morning at a Starbucks near Santa Monica beach, and David Rodriguez Ordunez is checking Facebook while charging his phone.

He's one of 44,000 people living on the streets in and around Los Angeles — and he's one of three homeless people at the coffee shop this morning.

"Since there's Internet here, that's mainly one of the purposes. I've usually got to find locations to actually have access," Ordunez explains.

Why Starbucks instead of the library? "Well, the library opens like at 10 o'clock or something," he says.

Most shelters close early in the morning, pushing people out onto the sidewalks — where they sometimes go back to sleep. "And then a lot of times if you're homeless, you've got to get up at a certain time 'cause if not, they'll give you a ticket," Orundez adds. "That's totally inhumane. I'm like, give me a place to live or somewhere to go or something."

With more than 400 branches in the LA area, often, the place to go is Starbucks. And that's why lately, these coffee shops are finding themselves on the front line of the city's homeless crisis.

In the past few months, three Starbucks outlets in LA have closed their bathrooms completely, even to paying customers. Those stores are located in downtown and Hollywood, areas with big homeless populations.

In a statement, the company said the closures are because of unspecified safety concerns. But former Starbucks supervisor Lester Monzon says the chain has had a long-standing struggle with the homeless relying on its bathrooms.

"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," he says. "They'll take off their shirts, they'll bathe themselves. When they leave, the whole bathroom is just completely destroyed." Some current employees, who aren't allowed to speak on tape, had similar complaints.

But regulating bathroom use is just one concern. Twenty to 25 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. suffers from some form of severe mental illness — and many baristas aren't sure how to interact with homeless customers showing signs of mental distress. Should they ask the person to leave? Call the police?

And they have to take customers into account, too, Mazon says. "Half the people that are watching are seeing if you're gonna be a jerk. Half the people don't want them there and half the people are like, more compassion," he says. "You try to do your best."

On a recent afternoon, a woman came out of a Starbucks near the Hollywood Walk of Fame, yelling at nobody. She was pulling a shopping cart full of bags — and carrying a cup of coffee.

It's a tough situation, says Mary McNeall, who frequents a Starbucks near Venice Beach. "My heart goes out to them, and it's definitely something delicate," she says. "It can get uncomfortable."

And yet — it makes sense that Starbucks is one of several places where the city's growing number of homeless patch together their days, says Gary Blasi, a professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Law and a longtime advocate for the homeless. The problem is, "there is no social safety net," he says. "Or if there is, it's comprised mainly of holes."

"Frankly, I think a lot of people who are hanging out in a Starbucks would rather be hanging out at home," he adds.

That's where Ordunez — the man charging his phone in Santa Monica — would rather be.

People aren't that friendly when you walk in, carrying a bunch of bags, he says. "And you just notice it, you know?"

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Coffee shops are not social service agencies, but in Los Angeles, businesses are finding themselves at the frontline of the homeless crisis. From member station KCRW, Anna Scott looks at Starbucks as a case study.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: It's about 6:30 in the morning at a Starbucks near Santa Monica beach.

DAVID RODRIGUEZ ORDUNEZ: My name is David, David Rodriguez Ordunez. I'm homeless at the moment.

SCOTT: Ordunez is checking Facebook while charging his phone. He's 1 of 44,000 people living on the streets in and around LA. He's 1 of 3 homeless people in this coffee shop this morning.

ORDUNEZ: Since there's Internet here, that's mainly one of the purposes. I usually got to find locations who actually have access.

SCOTT: How come Starbucks instead of the library?

ORDUNEZ: Well, the library opens at like 10 o'clock or something.

SCOTT: And most shelters close early in the mornings, pushing people out onto the sidewalks where sometimes they go back to sleep.

ORDUNEZ: And then a lot of times if you're homeless, you got to get up at a certain time 'cause if not, they'll give you a ticket. That's totally inhumane. I'm like, hey, give me a place to live or somewhere to go or something.

SCOTT: Coffee shops are one place to go, and with more than 400 stores in the LA area, that's often Starbucks. In the past few months, three LA Starbucks have closed their bathrooms completely even to paying customers. The stores are in downtown and Hollywood, areas with big homeless populations. In a statement, the company said the closures are because of unspecified safety concerns, but former Starbucks supervisor Lester Monzon says the chains had a long-standing struggle with the homeless relying on its bathrooms.

LESTER MONZON: 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. They'll take off their shirts, and they'll bathe themselves.

SCOTT: Some current employees who aren't allowed to speak on tape have similar complaints. Monzon says the bathing is a chronic issue.

MONZON: And then when they leave, the whole bathroom is just completely destroyed.

SCOTT: Beyond bathrooms, baristas don't always know what to do if a homeless customer shows signs of mental illness. Ask the person to leave; call the police. Monzon says they have to take customers into account, too.

MONZON: Half the people that are watching are seeing if you're going to be a jerk. Half the people don't want them there, and half the people are, like - are more compassion. So you're dealing with the public. You try to do your best.

MARY MCNEALL: My heart goes out to them, and it's definitely something delicate.

SCOTT: Mary McNeall frequents a Starbucks near Venice Beach.

MCNEALL: It can get uncomfortable, like, getting around the person in, you know, in their very dirty, soiled clothing with a smell. And just - you just don't know what you're dealing with.

SCOTT: Like people who become aggressive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

SCOTT: This woman came out of a Starbucks near the Hollywood Walk of Fame one recent afternoon, yelling at nobody. She was pulling a shopping cart full of bags and carrying a cup of coffee.

GARY BLASI: There is no social safety net, or if there is, it's comprised mainly of holes.

SCOTT: Gary Blasi is on the faculty at UCLA Law School and is a longtime homeless advocate. He says Starbucks is one of several places where the city's growing number of homeless patch together their days.

BLASI: What else would you suggest that they do? Frankly, I think a lot of people who are hanging out in a Starbucks would rather be hanging out at home.

SCOTT: That's where David Rodriguez Ordunez, the man charging his phone in Santa Monica, would rather be.

ORDUNEZ: People, for some reason, look down on homeless people, and I - you just notice it, you know?

SCOTT: He says people aren't that friendly when you walk in carrying a bunch of bags. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.