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

*Act responsibly

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."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(11) comments

thatryguy

"This journey is so important?" Give me a f-cking break. My downtown business is moving to the NW because this city REFUSES to address this crisis. I had clients try to get in my office who literally had to step over needles and human waste to get in my doors. It's absolutely out of control. Buy hey, Pedro got a glass of water, so...

ReefRanger

I feel for many of these people who have fallen on hard times. The problem is that you cant tell the people who, through no fault of their own, are on the streets, and those who choose to be on the streets because they won't clean up their act and get or accept help for their addictions. I'm not a well-off person, but I used to give street people money whenever I could. But like a few others here, I got burned by those who lied in order to play on my former sympathetic nature. I no longer give to anyone, so those who are really in need should be policing those who are just out there to get money for their drugs or alcohol. In addition, the police department claims they have "limited abilities to deal with the homeless problem". Really? California Penal Code section 647 gives the police quite a bit of power to deal with vagrancy, loitering, panhandling, and littering. And camping in public parks is covered under this section. I realize they can't house every littering vagrant in the county jail, however, the code DOES allow for the perpetrator to be made to pick up trash in the community for a minimum of 8 hours for every violation of that section. Bakersfield could really benefit from this service, considering the litter problem in the downtown area is mainly caused by the street people. They need to learn what a trash receptacle is, and how to hit one.

She Dee

Starbucks can't afford to make any more PR mistakes these days! All people need to be tolerant of one another in public places. That's the way the world works..or at least it should here in the US! Customers come in all shapes, sizes, colors & economic status.

ISpy

"Every person..is a customer..whether they buy something, or not.." This person must be using entry #2, in the dictionary, under "customer."

BanditIvy

An incredibly stupid article by an obvious snowflake who could care less how this scrooge affects downtown businesses

Abby

Took the words right out of my mouth!

RuthTisdale

I applaud any business that puts forth the concept of treating people with decency and respect. What I don’t like is running the gammet of beggars lined up on the sidewalk. Sometimes I have even had to weave in and around people on the sidewalk to get inside. When the people begging have the attitude that just because I am stopping for something means I should buy them something or give them money then it is a problem. Since no one seems to be concerned with the employees who are spending money, this paying customer just doesn’t stop there anymore. In the past I have purchased food or beverages to assist someone and when you look as you are getting in the car and they are throwing it in the trash that tells me they are just begging for money to support whatever addiction they have. Before anyone gets on the bandwagon and tries to shame me for being so harsh or not helping the homeless; I do help. It’s just. One of your business home I help and I will NOT be shamed to anyone’s else’s idea of feeling sorry for and enabling others. I work for my money and I occasionally stop at Starbucks for a treat. But no more down there.

Donna Semar

We treat dogs more humanely. These lost souls need to be institutionalized and cared for properly.

OnyxCollector

A cute article that completely ignores how incredibly horrible the situation has become, and continues to grow

sinsear961

AGREED!!!! Instead of accolades for how they welcome and treat homeless, how about addressing the problem itself, on HOWto make productive people out of these bums.

Susan S

I like Starbucks’ approach, and I used to spend hours at this Starbucks when my kids were at Downtown School. I quit going there because I’m a weirdo magnet, and people panhandled in the store every time I was there. I couldn’t take it anymore.

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