Can Coffee Help the Homeless?

  "I've been practicing my latte art. I wonder if there's anyone nearby that could use a warm cup of caffeinated milk on my walk home..."

"I've been practicing my latte art. I wonder if there's anyone nearby that could use a warm cup of caffeinated milk on my walk home..."

I got so many questions right away when I announced my site at an event tonight in Seattle. This one was my favorite, and so I raced home to answer it. More are to come.

The question came from Jess Ornelas, a Seattle Coffeewoman and all around lovely person. Jess asked, "Is there a way to encourage people (guests/baristas/businesses) to be kind to our growing homeless population in Seattle, especially now that the weather is getting colder? Maybe is there a way for businesses to reward their customers for bringing in a donation... or something?"  

The short answer: YES! There is an awesome project in Seattle called The Pledge doing very close to exactly what you're talking about. Please support and collaborate through it and with it!

The long answer: As always, I like to start an answer to a question with a story. "Homelessness" is a tough topic, and I've encountered so many reactions from coffee people just from using that word. But I grew up with a really intense empathy and respect for homeless folks, most of whom are there because of a long list of circumstances beyond their control.

My heart goes out to them, especially those clearly suffering from mental illnesses, because a member of my family suffers from a severe mental illness. Watching what brain disorders do to someone you love made me both extremely grateful for my mental health, and acutely aware of how close we all are to becoming homeless if we experience a mental break in our lives (1 in 5 Americans usually do at some point, btw). 

In our specialty coffee world of hospitality, there's a delicate balance between "service" and "people freeloading". Cafe managers grumble about guests stealing from the condiment bars, taking electricity from outlets, or people just sitting there to get warm. This is especially true in that "grey zone" between when a guest settles in without becoming a patron - in a cafe, unlike in restaurants, this zone is more difficult to navigate. 

I've found that there's one simple rule to follow in this situation: be kind and provide exactly the same service to everyone. Does your cafe offer free samples? Or water or outlets for patrons? Then provide them. To everyone. If everyone needs to make a purchase, let every guest know.

The flip side to this is: don't be horrible. Don't assume someone is homeless. Don't profile or target people. Don't yell at someone to make a purchase just as they sit down, next to someone who hasn't ordered anything for 2 hours, dawdling away on their Macbook Pro. 

Ok, I said there was a story. Once, at a cafe, I watched as a guest waited at least 20 minutes in line, quietly. He appeared homeless, but I did not ask him so I could not say for sure. When he arrived at the front of the queue, he politely asked for a brewed coffee sample, which our store provided to all guests, and so I got him one and thanked him. He stepped out of the line and to the condiment bar.

At that point, the store manager noticed him and grumbled under her breath to me, "Ugh. That guy is so frustrating. He comes in every day and gets a sample, and them dumps a dozen packs of sugar and all the cream he can into that little cup." As she said it, he demonstrated the behavior exactly. He then, also, gently crossed back through a crowd of customers, and left the store.

I turned to the manager, "Have you ever thought about it from his point of view? As the manager of this store, he is likely so incredibly grateful to you for this routine. You allow him sustenance - maybe the only calories he gets for several hours - and a warm cup to hold in the cold. Let him take the stuff. 20 more folks will come in and take their coffee black anyway."

Every person is responsible for determining how they can be kind to every guest in their space. Every person also needs to treat their guests equally and fairly, complying with the rules of the business is important, ultimately for everyone's safety and security. But I challenge you to look at your guests with empathy, and think about how you might feel after a sleeping on a sidewalk, in the cold and rain. Can you help them afford to be a patron? Is there something you can provide that, if all goes well, will be win-win for your cafe and your guest? Can you start a true relationship and share a moment with a human being in a overwhelmingly tough place in life?  

If you can, take the pledge. Or help the pledge. Or simply consider what you can do to be kind, to everyone. Share a story of a time someone was kind to you, or you were kind to them, in the comments, if this resonates with you.

Anne NylanderComment