Businesses Are Finally Stepping Up To Help The Homeless Crisis

A Seattle initiative links homeless customers with charitable businesses.
Tents under a highway near downtown Seattle, March 2017. Homelessness in the city has increased amid America's worsening housing crisis.
Tents under a highway near downtown Seattle, March 2017. Homelessness in the city has increased amid America's worsening housing crisis.

SEATTLE ― Rita was homeless when she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2016. Fortunately, Medicaid covered her prescription costs. Not so fortunately, her medication acted as a diuretic — she had to urinate frequently.

If she had a permanent place to stay, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But in Seattle, where she had become homeless after struggling with addiction for years, many of the shelters closed every morning and didn’t reopen until 9 p.m. That meant Rita had to spend most of her day looking for bathrooms.

Businesses, she learned, were out of the question. Rita remembers telling a restaurant hostess about her condition and begging to use the bathroom. The hostess refused.

“There were times when I had to relieve myself in parks and alleys,” Rita said. “There’s no tissue and there’s no privacy. It’s so degrading.”

Rita eventually got into recovery and found a subsidized apartment. Through her case manager, she found a plus-size consignment store that donated clothes to women who were experiencing homelessness or had just escaped it. She took the bus to the shop and picked out a dress, a blazer and a purse — nice clothes, “the kinds of things you’d find at Nordstrom or Macy’s,” she said.

She went back to the same restaurant in her new outfit. The hostess let her use the bathroom with no hesitation.

“That felt good but it also felt bad,” said Rita, who asked HuffPost not to use her full name because it might affect her ability to find work. “Businesses treat you so terribly and it has nothing to do with you as a person. It’s just how you look.”

America’s homelessness crisis is transforming every institution of urban life. Libraries have started offering showers, social workers and even nurses to their homeless patrons. Transit agencies are converting subway stations into makeshift shelters. Police face increasing pressure to incorporate counseling, harm reduction and other public health approaches in their work.

And yet, businesses have mostly escaped scrutiny for the ways they treat people experiencing homelessness. Last October, two Dunkin’ Donuts employees were fired after pouring water on a man sleeping outside their store in Syracuse, New York. Other retailers use spikes, music and even robots to chase away homeless people. Despite having hundreds of locations in cities with high homelessness rates, Starbucks only passed a policy allowing noncustomers to use the restroom in 2018, after a racist incident in Philadelphia highlighted the chain’s lack of a clear policy.

But alongside these failures are signs that a more humane approach could be catching on. As homelessness continues to increase in America’s fastest-growing cities, companies in at least one are banding together to help.

Businesses Have A Bad Track Record On Homelessness

In most places, the private sector’s primary response to homelessness has been trying to convince cities to take a more punitive approach to solving it. In California, retailers have started using “business improvement districts” to pass anti-panhandling laws that have been shown to exacerbate homelessness and have already been struck down by courts. Municipal chambers of commerce have funded ballot initiatives supporting police sweeps and opposing new revenues for shelters and housing. In Seattle, local businesses funded a study that exaggerated the importance of the homeless population in the city’s crime rate.

Alongside the cruel companies are the clueless ones. Over the last few years, Silicon Valley startups have built apps that make it easier for city residents to report tent encampments to police. In 2012, the South by Southwest arts festival in Austin, Texas, used homeless people as Wi-Fi hot spots.

“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city,” wrote two-time startup founder Justin Keller in 2016 in an open letter to the mayor of San Francisco. “I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”

These attitudes are what makes living on the streets an endless experience of exclusion.

“You want to know what it’s like to be homeless? Just walk around all day,” said Tyrone, a government employee in Washington state who asked HuffPost not to use his last name out of fear that it could jeopardize his employment.

Tyrone spent three years living on the streets in Georgia. He once had to walk 10 miles to a hospital to get water on a 90-degree day after more than a dozen businesses refused to let him through their doors.

“The police will harass you if you’re outside,” he said, “and businesses will harass you if you try to come inside.”

Most cities with homeless crises have more people experiencing homelessness than shelter beds.
Most cities with homeless crises have more people experiencing homelessness than shelter beds.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

A New Model Helps Homeless Customers Find Welcoming Businesses

But not every business is so hostile. Lisa Michaud, the owner of Two Big Blondes, the clothing store where Rita picked up her designer outfit, has been working with service providers and inviting homeless women to visit her store for years.

“We know it’s not the same thing as solving homelessness,” Michaud said, “but it’s important to us to get to know our homeless neighbors and offer them whatever we can.”

Michaud’s store is a neighborhood institution in Seattle’s rapidly gentrifying Central District. As the homeless population has increased around her in the last five years, Michaud has deepened her relationships with local service providers. Rita still comes to the store every three months to try on new outfits and take some of them home.

“My new addiction is clothes,” she said. The employees at the store help her pick accessories. Sometimes they have brand-new bras and underwear to offer. “They loved me when I didn’t love myself,” Rita said.

Two Big Blondes is part of a Seattle-based initiative called The Pledge in which companies offer services such as bathroom use, free water or phone charging to homeless customers. Pledge organizers then add the company’s location to a map that they distribute to people living on the streets, and the businesses can add a sticker to their door.

“We’re trying to kill the stereotype that there’s places where homeless people shouldn’t be,” said Devin Silvernail, founder and director of The Pledge.

Some stores have installed spikes and other forms of "hostile architecture" to prevent the homeless population from sleeping near their stores.
Some stores have installed spikes and other forms of "hostile architecture" to prevent the homeless population from sleeping near their stores.
Mike Kemp via Getty Images

Silvernail’s inspiration was personal. He grew up in Seattle and moved to San Francisco for college. When he returned in 2015, Silvernail couldn’t find an affordable apartment and spent months sleeping on friends’ couches.

“I was spending a lot of time in cafes,” he said, “and I was aware that I could do that because I look and dress a certain way. It was easy for me, and I wanted to make it easy for everybody.”

Silvernail start going door to door asking businesses if they would consider offering services to homeless customers. He began by requesting that they open their restrooms, but most retailers refused. They didn’t want to become a hub for homeless residents and turn other customers away.

So Silvernail scaled back. He began asking cafes to offer free water and bike shops to let their homeless neighbors to use their air pumps. Since many of them were doing that anyway, they agreed. Soon afterward, Silvernail found, most of them started allowing homeless people to use their restrooms too.

“If you start small, companies will realize that homeless customers aren’t so different from everyone else,” Silvernail said.

Growing Needs And Growing Challenges

So far, 43 companies have signed up with The Pledge. The most common offerings are free water, device charging and restrooms, but others have gone a step further. A barbershop gives out free haircuts. A spa lets homeless people take a rest. A thrift store funded by an AIDS charity invites homeless customers to take advantage of its free HIV tests.

Cafes have started to step up too. Some offer free warm drinks during the winter. Others have created “pay it forward” funds that their customers pay into and homeless people can draw from if they need a drink or a snack. Many more have installed needle disposal containers in their restrooms.

While the model is growing in Seattle and Silvernail is helping other cities establish similar initiatives, he acknowledges that it’s an uphill climb. Lots of cafes don’t want to be included on publicly available maps or advertise that they hand out pastries at the end of the day.

There’s also the challenge of chain stores. While a significant percentage of baristas and store managers respond positively to Silvernail’s pitch, managers and owners less connected to daily operations are often skittish about publicly welcoming homeless customers.

“There’s a vocal minority of business that don’t want to help, but a much greater number want to help and just don’t know how.”

- Devin Silvernail, Pledge founder

“The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more nervous people get,” Silvernail said. One Seattle coffee chain, Kaladi Brothers Coffee, pulled out of The Pledge in 2016, reversing the decision of the local store manager. In a statement, Kaladi’s CEO said he was concerned that The Pledge would invite drug use, long wait times for the bathrooms and homeless people “shouting profanity” at customers.

“What we tell businesses is that you don’t have to give anyone special treatment,” Silvernail said. “If someone is a jerk, you can still kick them out.” While some homeless customers do indeed have mental health or drug abuse problems, the majority do not. Punishing every homeless person for the actions of a few individuals, Silvernail said, just reinforces the stigmatization of poverty he set up The Pledge to address.

But the more fundamental challenge of The Pledge model is that alleviating the daily indignities of homelessness is not the same as solving it outright. As The Pledge spreads to other cities, Silvernail hopes it will encourage businesses to take a more humane approach in their lobbying efforts as well as their daily operations.

“There’s a vocal minority of business that don’t want to help, but a much greater number want to help and just don’t know how,” he said.

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