Getting kicked out of coffee shops is a reality many houseless people face in Santa Cruz. While some are removed for what coffee shop managers describe as inappropriate behavior, such as being drunk or causing a disturbance, others voice they are being discriminated against for no apparent reason.
Around 40 houseless advocates rallied downtown on Jan. 25, stating the downtown cafés are currently harboring an attitude of discrimination against the houseless population. The houseless individuals voiced complaints toward many café workers’ dismissing or refusing to serve them.
The rally had been planned for four days since the last weekly Wednesday meeting of the Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), Santa Cruz’s oldest houseless advocacy group. During the meeting, many members recounted reports of exclusions from the coffee shops and cafés and being treated differently from other customers.
What started off as a group of 40 became a group of 10, as they marched through nine cafés. At each location, the group of 10 houseless individuals attempted to address their stances and reach out to the managers.
“There is an atmosphere of repression that has descended on Santa Cruz and we’re trying to encourage businesses and the community to resist this,” said rally leader and independent writer Robert Norse. “It’s one thing to exclude someone for a justifiable reason and another thing for our case.”
Advocates at the rally said the reasons they have been dismissed from the coffee shops and cafés are almost entirely based on appearance, often toward those who carry large backpacks.
Houseless independent writer James Richard Armstrong, who was dismissed multiple times from different cafés, came to the rally to march alongside those who have been rejected at these locations.
“I got excluded because of my appearance and my backpack,” Armstrong said. “Yesterday it was Peet’s Coffee — the second time this has happened. This isn’t the only café that has kicked me out. A Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters worker told me I’m not allowed to bring my backpack in.”
Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters and other local coffee shops refused to comment on this issue. Peet’s Coffee was the only café willing to comment.
The café workers’ reasons for dismissing any of the customers are almost entirely based on their guidelines.
Peet’s Coffee shift manager Marissa Ramirez said the shop dismisses houseless individuals on a regular basis. About 30 houseless people visit Peet’s Coffee every day and at least two get kicked out each day.
Ramirez said though excluding the houseless may look discriminatory, the reasons for doing so are justified by the behavior of some individuals that violate the general rules for customers of Peet’s Coffee.
“We don’t serve them mostly due to certain inappropriate behavior — they sleep here, often they have a lot of baggage, but most of the time it has to do with their not buying coffee,” Ramirez said. “For some situations when they did buy coffee, they asked other customers for the money outside the store, so they are not technically customers. Also, often a lot of other customers coming in can’t sit down since a homeless person keeps buying coffee and never leaves.”
Advocates who are houseless expressed their concerns against being treated differently from other customers though they have paid for their food and coffee. A houseless individual at the rally who introduced himself as Sir William Blake also experienced such exclusions.
“They kicked me out of Café Pergolesi because I kept buying coffees,” Blake said. “I was also eating a Subway sub against the wall one day and cops asked me to move — there was no traffic. Not many people were there.”
The houseless argued at the rally they should always be given the same individual rights as those of all other community members.
“If merchants truly believe what they say, that’s fine,” said rally leader and independent writer Robert Norse. “If those guidelines really include non-discrimination, they should post a non-discrimination pledge.”
While café shops are adamant their guidelines don’t discriminate against anyone, the houseless community alongside its supporters remain insistent that if their appearance were similar to those who aren’t houseless, they would be treated differently.
“Everyone needs to have human rights here,” Norse said. “As members of the community, homeless people care about liberties.”