Are LA Coffee Shops the New Homeless Drop-In Centers?

GUEST WORDS-Recently, while visiting several different coffee shops in San Francisco, I noticed many of their restrooms have signs on the doors saying, “Closed Until Further Notice.” Upon questioning the employees, they immediately tried to re-direct me to other establishments in the neighborhood that offer public restrooms. 

When I asked if their restrooms would be repaired soon, the clerks explained they cannot keep them open because the homeless take baths in them, flooding the floors as well as shooting up drugs and throwing their dirty needles on the ground. 

The clerks are quickly learning that a homeless person has no choice but to remain dirty because of no access to baths, are compelled to sometimes steal food because of hunger, and are forced to sleep when and where they can because they have no beds like most people do. 

But the employees still must remember that their job is to take care of the paying customers who are entitled to a clean establishment with restrooms available. 

Employees told me that they often find homeless people asleep in their restrooms and to get them to leave, they sometimes need to call the police for help. 

One young clerk told me that since the homeless don’t get to bathe regularly, customers in the store complain that restrooms sometimes smell badly. He said it is easier to place an “Out of Order” sign on the door than to try and explain the situation to the paying customers who are out of luck in their need for a restroom, and frequently take out their frustrations on the employees. 

Often, he continued, homeless people fall asleep with their heads on the tables, surrounded by large garbage bags filled with their belongings; customers will not sit near them. 

In areas of cities with a large homeless population, employees not only put “Out of Order” signs on restroom doors, they remove chairs and tables, forcing customers to stand to drink their coffee, hoping to deter the poor from coming in to bathe and sleep. 

In the coffee houses that do provide chairs, employees explain that they feel sorry for the homeless who are often young people close to their own age. Sometimes they let them sleep for several hours before asking them to leave. 

Since customers will not sit near them while they sleep and often choose to leave the establishment, business in some areas is declining. I wonder if the employees’ training prepares them to gently yet firmly deal with the poor in their neighborhoods as well as serve the paying customers. 

The need for shelters for the poor is extremely critical and I applaud employees at coffee houses for trying to sensitively deal with the homeless situation, though I am certain they are not paid to both serve paying customers and interact with homeless people. 

A young woman working at one coffee shop in San Francisco shared with me that telling someone who obviously hadn’t had a bath for days to leave the establishment seemed intensely cruel to her. She is in college and this is her first job, as well as her first experience in dealing with the poor. 

At her shop, she added, they have to remove the cream after each customer uses it instead of leaving it out, because homeless people will drink it all. The clerk said there have been times she was not certain if some people were homeless or not, and found it awkward to be the judge of that. 

While many shops throw homeless people out of their stores, some teach their employees that treating all people with dignity and respect is the number one requirement of all jobs. 

Theft in some coffee shops continues to take its toll. Employees are expected to police the products on the shelves as well as keep homeless people out of their restrooms and prevent them from falling asleep in their chairs. 

All this, on top of doing normal customer service work, seems over and above the line of duty for young adults who are often trying to pay their way through college with their part-time coffee shop jobs. 

As the population of homeless people grows, we cannot simply say, “build houses for everyone” while not offering, in the meantime, ways for the poor to bathe, sleep, eat, store their belongings, as well as take care of their bodily needs, which we all have to do to survive. 

Perhaps the clerks in these coffee shops who encounter the homeless population everyday are the very ones who will lead us to much-needed solutions!


(Judy Joy Jones blogs on Street Spirit where is piece originated.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.