Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. supporters of Caffé Vita baristas will gather outside the local coffee chain’s Capitol Hill location to protest a slew of firings and resignations that followed what they call the “sudden, harsh enforcement” of a company policy against giving homeless people old pastries and coffee.
On September 6, the cafe’s now-former general manager, Isaiah Washington, sent an email to current and former employees laying out the policy.
“We’ve recently learned that some employees have been giving away Vita gift cards, food, and coffee to homeless people in the neighborhoods we occupy,” Washington wrote in the email. “Although these were well placed intentions, please understand, it is our belief that feeding homeless people without comprehensive services actually enables, increases and promotes homelessness.”
Washington went on to write that “giving away products is theft and the grounds for immediate termination,” and then argued customers “will likely choose alternatives” if the cafe is “filled with homeless people.” The email concluded with an invitation to “discuss opportunities to volunteer or donate” to the company’s “charitable efforts aimed at homelessness” if employees wanted to “make a meaningful impact.”
One barista was fired for giving out two refill coffees before the email went out, according to four former employees who were working at the Capitol Hill location. Since that initial dismissal, a total of 10 full-time employees have been fired or have quit for reasons related to that policy, those employees say.
Caffé Vita's human resources director did not immediately return my phone call, but I'll update this post if I hear back.
In an interview, former Capitol Hill manager Hannah Delon, who worked for the company at multiple locations for five-and-a-half years before getting fired for "failure to enforce protocol," said for “at least the last ten years” baristas have given "pastry waste" to a homeless man they believe distributes the confections to other people experiencing homelessness. Delon also said baristas sometimes give away drip coffee dregs to homeless people who offer to help bring in tables and chairs at the end of the night.
According to Delon, upper management doesn’t require baristas to mark down the amount of remaining drip coffee or the number of remaining waste pastries.
“In fact,” said Sylva, a barista who worked for the company for five years before recently resigning due to the aftermath of the firings, “I was told in my training to give away pastries to homeless people at the end of the night or to set them near the trash."
All four employees who spoke with The Stranger also deny giving away gift cards or hearing of anyone giving away gift cards. One employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said giving away gift cards would be dumb because the cards aren’t pre-loaded with cash.
Over the phone, Liz McConnell, who owns Caffé Vita along with her husband Mike McConnell, said information about employee terminations was “confidential,” though she said all the employees were fired "for cause."
McConnell said she believed the company had a pastry waste protocol, but she was “not sure” if any such protocol was listed in the employee handbook or elsewhere. She also didn’t know if the company had protocol for drip coffee destined for the drain.
When asked what evidence she uses to substantiate the belief that feeding homeless people enables homelessness, McConnell said “a belief isn’t saying anything that’s factual.”
When pressed on the issue, she told the story of a homeless person who, McConnell claimed, turned down a job offer at the cafe because “they said they preferred to stay on unemployment.” She added that providing “comprehensive solutions” was the most effective way to address homelessness and pointed to her support of nonprofits such as FareStart and Mary’s Place.
It Turns Out That Feeding Homeless People Does Not Enable Homelessness
McConnell is certainly correct that beliefs are not necessarily factual.
The National Coalition on Homelessness (NCH) has written a series of reports about successful food-sharing programs that have debunked the “enabling hypothesis” on display in Caffé Vita’s email.
The NCH argues that denying people food is counterproductive: "Food is not an addiction; food is necessary for survival,” writes the coalition. “Depriving a person of food means that she must put all of her energy into obtaining food and less energy on improving other aspects of her life.”
In an email, Dr. Susan E. Collins, who co-directs the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment Center (HaRRT) along with Dr. Seema L. Clifasefi at the University of Washington, said neither she nor Clifasefi were aware of any experimental or observational research that would substantiate the cafe's claim.
Collins added that such research would be difficult to come by because it would “not be ethical” to conduct. Apparently, scientists are reluctant to randomly starve some homeless people while feeding others in order to reach a conclusion about whether feeding people helps them.
However, recent studies on another basic human right—the right to housing—also prove the enabling hypothesis wrong. Critics of Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake program, a low-barrier housing facility that doesn't require sobriety, argued that housing the homeless without forcing them to put down the bottle would only “enable” their alcohol abuse. The research team at HaRRT found the opposite occurred. “The mere provision of housing was associated with decreased alcohol use and alcohol-related problems as well as decreased use of expensive publicly funded services (jail, Haborview ED, shelters, etc.) and associated costs to the community,” she said.
“I would expect the same kinds of findings to be similar regarding the fulfillment of another basic need that is a human right: the right to food,” Collins added. "But I hate to think we would even have to do a study to show that."
Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, also found the argument against feeding homeless people meritless. “To call this position naïve is too charitable,” she said in an email.
To believe such a thing, Rankin says you’d have to believe that “if people are nourished, they will voluntarily choose to endure the many varied horrors and traumas of homelessness.”
Rankin also said the statement presumes that sufficient services exist, which they don’t. “It also presumes people can readily choose to go to a shelter, which they often cannot—not only because we lack sufficient beds but also because many shelters impose obstacles that render them functionally inaccessible to many unsheltered people. It also presumes that services, without the stability of housing, is sufficient. It’s not.”
"I wish Seattle could be more like the employees in this circumstance, who dared to see others as human beings first," Rankin added.
"Houseless Folks Have Been Integral to the Cafe's Community"
When it comes to views on Caffé Vita’s homeless customers, upper management and the employees who spoke with The Stranger expressed profound differences.
Though management argues that feeding homeless people “promotes” homelessness and could scare off business, the former staff members say homeless people pay for coffee and help with security issues. Homeless people have even found permanent housing through connections they made as regulars at the cafe, according to the baristas.
McConnell said she’s received written and verbal complaints about people perceived to be homeless threatening the safety of baristas, including one complaint from an employee who said they’d been “attacked” by a homeless person on the job.
The four former Vita baristas said they had no problem permanently barring people who “caused problems” at the store, some of whom have appeared to be homeless. But the Capitol Hill baristas say homeless people don't present a significant security threat. “It’s Saturday night Capitol Hill people,” Delon said. “Drunk bros and shitty dudes that come in and yell—bridge and tunnel assholes and their friends.”
One of the baristas said one night they confronted two drunk college students who were yelling “homophobic slurs” outside the cafe. “When I approached them, they started to beat me up, but I don’t fight. Luckily, an unhoused person who regularly buys coffee from us maced the guys, which got them off me,” the barista said.
Another barista said homeless regulars often help with security: “The people who get coffee protects us, let us know who’s not good to come in.”
“We have several stories like this,” said Sylva. “A lot of houseless folks have been integral to the cafe’s community, especially with shitty security issues."
The baristas also take issue with the email’s suggestion that the cafe is “filling” with homeless people. “We’re not acting like a shelter,” said another barista. “The policy is customers only in the cafe, and everyone respects that. It hasn’t been a problem.”
The people organizing today’s demonstration at 4:30 p.m. encourage supporters to bring “signs, megaphones, sidewalk chalk, and other resources for non-violent direct action.”
“If you have a Caffé Vita gift card, this demonstration is an excellent time to order as much drip coffee as possible to give away to houseless members of our community,” the organizers write in a Facebook event. “Free Vita Coffee!”
UPDATE 6:12 P.M.
Over the phone, Washington said he “regrets” going along with upper management’s plan to send the email, and claims he didn’t think the specific content regarding the homeless was necessary. In fact, he says he wrote a version to top managers reiterating the policy without the enabling hypothesis, but was asked the next day to “send out the pre-written statement” in the email.
“In hindsight it was ill-conceived, but I just went ahead and did it,” he said.
Washington said he quit this Monday without another job lined up because he wasn't comfortable with the company’s response to concerns that have been rolling in on social media and through email. “The plan was to keep ignoring peoples’ concerns and hope it was all going to blow over,” he said.