Pedro Vega doesn't look like your average Starbucks customer.
His clothes are worn and tattered, his feet, bare and stained by the broiling streets — and his face, it tells a story.
But when Vega walks through the door of a downtown Starbucks at 24th and M streets, he becomes a customer, instantly, even if he has no money.
As scores of businesses in downtown Bakersfield struggle mightily with an apparent surge in homeless individuals, along with so-called street people — some who are drug users, some not — and the vandalism, crime and vagrancy that come with it, Starbucks seems to have forged its own path.
"Since our founding in 1971, Starbucks has set out to be a different kind of company, one that puts people first: our partners, our customers and our communities," the company says in what it calls its "third place" policy.
During a phone call and emails last week to Starbucks media relations, a spokesman declined to speak on the record — and said company store managers may not speak to news organizations — but instead referred The Californian to the Seattle-based company's published policy, which is available on its website.
"Everyone should feel welcomed at Starbucks," the third place policy states. "Every person who visits a Starbucks store is a customer, whether they make a purchase or not. Our customers are welcome to use the spaces we provide appropriately, including our cafés, patios and restrooms."
Bob Bell, owner of the shopping center on 24th Street where the Starbucks is located, has dealt with issues associated with the street population for years. But he's never seen it this bad.
He admits he was skeptical of the Starbucks model, initially.
"This benevolence is surprisingly working," he said. While problems haven't disappeared, he said the coffee company's policy hasn't exacerbated the problems.
"I'm a big believer in self-respect and people being given honor and dignity," he said. But as a businessman, he's also had to be aggressive at times in asking loiterers to remove themselves from the property — including the man he spotted once trying to light cardboard on fire in the parking lot.
But he has also been impressed by the Starbucks approach.
On more than one occasion he has seen a street person — Bell sometimes refers to them as "the broken" — yelling aggressively. But after being treated with kindness by Starbucks "partners," or employees, they quieted down, were allowed to use the restroom or get some water, and left without further incident.
"Maybe it's just the dignity," Bell said.
Of course, such an approach won't work in all cases, and Starbucks acknowledges as much in its policy.
The existence of a welcoming public space at the coffee house is a "shared responsibility," Starbucks says, while emphasizing these company guidelines:
*Use our spaces as intended
*Be considerate of our partners and other customers
*Communicate with respect
During a meeting of dozens of downtown business owners held last week, many shared sometimes harrowing stories of street people grossly violating the very tenets Starbucks encourages, to act responsibly and speak respectfully.
And many say they are frustrated by the inability of the city to respond to the problems.
However, some business owners and Downtown Business Association president Melanie Farmer said they left the meeting with a sense that DBA members and other area merchants and downtown professionals are coming together, and are resolved to address issues creatively and effectively.
In the works are inquiries into how best to supplement security in the downtown district. They are also talking about forming clean-up teams, appropriately outfitted and done in consultation with county health officials, who would clean up areas left soiled or littered by vagrants or those who have been shown to be purposefully malicious.
Bell, the owner of the 24th Street shopping center, says despite the problems, he remains optimistic.
"This journey is so important," he said. "Let's seek solutions for all of it.
"Maybe, together, we can do this right."