Is Starbucks redesign a ‘keep out’ sign for Philly’s homeless people?
“Starbucks said, ‘Everyone is welcome. After this incident, we don’t want to turn anyone away; you don’t have to buy anything.’ It seems like people have taken that to heart, maybe too much."
On Mondays, members of a running group with the organization Back on My Feet like to end their early-morning workout by lingering over coffee at the Starbucks at Broad and Pine streets in Center City — “Monday motivation," they call it.
But a couple weeks ago, the group of volunteers and homeless individuals arrived to find that the usual tables and chairs were gone. All that remained were two high-top tables in a corner, a half-dozen tall stools along the windows, and an expanse of vacant territory.
“The space looked really empty,” said Sophie White, 26, of Queen Village, who had noticed an increase in homeless people lingering at the cafe since the coffee giant overhauled its policies following a viral incident last year.
“Starbucks said, ‘Everyone is welcome. After this incident, we don’t want to turn anyone away; you don’t have to buy anything.’ It seems like people have taken that to heart, maybe too much — so now they’re trying to find a more natural way to deter people.”
The Starbucks in question happens to sit just a few doors from Broad Street Ministry, which serves lunch to the hungry five days a week and runs an overnight respite each winter. It is also just five blocks from the Starbucks cafe where two black men were arrested last year after refusing a manager’s demand that they leave, fueling a national media firestorm and inspiring the company to devote a day to anti-bias training.
A Starbucks spokesperson said removing the furniture was not intended as a deterrent. The store had been feeling crowded, so the managers were merely experimenting with a new configuration, the spokesperson said, adding, “We are really proud that the store is a valued community gathering place."
Still, to some, that experiment seems indistinguishable from the “defensive design” maneuvers deployed in public parks, where benches are bisected by dividers to prevent lying down — or, in the most extreme cases, are removed altogether.
“There are lots and lots of those kind of strategies that are explained for the market: It’s better for the customers. But it’s better, usually, for some customers than others," said Setha Low, a professor of environmental psychology at the Graduate Center at City University of New York. “So, not wanting it crowded is a perfectly legitimate [goal]. On the other hand, is it a cover for saying, ‘We only want some kind of people, and not others,’ or, ‘We don’t want people to stay so long'?”
Mike Dahl, Broad Street Ministry’s executive director, said he’s well-aware of concerns about the homeless population in the cafe.
“Starbucks changed their policy to be more open to the community — and when you open yourself up to the community, people respond,” he said, as volunteers set the tables for lunch in a sanctuary with soaring ceilings and festive decorations.
He said he has encouraged his guests to be respectful of neighbors, and is in conversation with Starbucks staff, some of whom have come by to volunteer. “I think there is a sincere desire to understand how to work with vulnerable populations," he said.
This is not, after all, a dilemma exclusive to Starbucks, where, on a recent morning, visits to half-dozen Center City locations found the majority of customers hunched over laptops, while just a handful of people who appeared to be homeless, surrounded by piles of plastic bags and without any coffee in front of them, dozed peaceably.
It’s just that many restaurants have addressed it more explicitly.
The Wendy’s at 11th and Walnut Streets has at least four signs, forbidding loitering, invoking a 20-minute limit on dining and reminding visitors who wish to sit that a purchase is required.
At Front and Girard, the text on a “no loitering” sign is almost as large as the McDonald’s lettering that sits along the roof line. There, a 30-minute limit on dining is attended by a posted warning that “this business is closely monitored by the 26th Police District" — and blocking the entrance could be grounds for arrest.
Relying on subtle cues, such as replacing the furniture, is a strategy more commonly seen in public spaces, because private businesses have the right to exclude people, said Don Mitchell, a geographer and the author of The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.
“What’s interesting about Starbucks is they changed their policy in response to that racist act a year ago and because of that have given up some of that ability to exclude,” he added. “So, in my view, it’s quite similar to what city governments have done: You cannot formally exclude members of the public from public space, but you can certainly make it very unwelcoming to them. And we see Starbucks is discovering the same solutions that managers of other public spaces are discovering.”
He said Starbucks is within its rights to do so — just as the managers of a Queens, N.Y., McDonald’s were five years ago, when they sought to evict the elderly patrons who were using the restaurant as a de facto senior center.
“The question becomes what we think of it socially and politically," he said. "Because the other piece of it is more and more of our gathering places, especially in the cold winter in Philadelphia, are on privately owned property.”
To Bill Golderer, who was the founding pastor of Broad Street Ministry, it speaks to a need for more and better daytime centers serving people experiencing homelessness.
He noted that Philadelphia has long grappled with the question of who has access to public space: It’s been almost a decade since then-Mayor Michael Nutter attempted to ban serving meals on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Golderer called for a more dignified place to serve meals then, too.)
When he started the ministry, there was a tension between his “radical hospitality” approach and the commercial goals of neighbors — University of the Arts, Starbucks. But they worked through it. The college began providing work-study students, Starbucks donated vats of coffee for the winter overnight cafes, and the ministry urged its guests to be mindful.
“When it works is when people learn that there is a spiritual discipline to being a neighbor,” Golderer said.
This Monday morning, of the 10 stools that remained in Starbucks at Broad and Pine, four were taken up by people who appeared to be homeless.
Michael Carr, 49, was outside smoking a cigarette. He said he comes here to use the restroom — the line is too long at the church — and to stay warm from 6 a.m., when everyone must leave Broad Street Ministry, until he can go back in for lunch.
But, he added, “I feel as though, if you sit here, you should buy something. I make sure I have money at night so I can.”
Carr, who became homeless, not for the first time, while incarcerated for nine months on a probation violation, is in a wheelchair. He hopes that when his disability check comes he’ll be able to move into long-term housing.
For now, he said, he feels welcome at the Starbucks.
They took out all the chairs, sure — but they also installed a single low table marked with a “handicap” symbol, Carr noted: “They put a table in there for me.”