Targeting Bias, if Not the Bottom Line

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, December 2, 2007

A l Szekely and Dawn Henderson, an unlikely pair, are regulars at the tables in front of the Tenleytown Starbucks. Dawn gets the coffee. Al provides the stories. Together, they haven't yet solved the world's problems, but they're working on it.

Or at least they were, until the Starbucks managers told Al he was no longer welcome at their establishment.

Al's a homeless man with wild, matted white hair, a long, scraggly beard, and a hand-lettered sign alerting us to the fact that some creep stole his electric wheelchair, which is why Al is stuck in a manual chair, trundling along and aggravating the pain in his hips.

Dawn is a part-time comedian who works as a sales manager in Rockville. She spends an inordinate share of her life at Starbucks. "My record is eight hours, at the Glover Park store," she said. She's a regular at five Starbucks, including shops near home, the office and various other markers in her daily travels. Dawn collects people, a couple of whom happen to be homeless.

So when she heard a Starbucks assistant manager and manager tell Al he had to leave the premises and would not be allowed back because the store didn't want homeless people hanging around, Dawn was incensed.

"As much money as I spend with this company, they're not going to kick you out," Dawn told Al. She told the managers that if they were going to send Al away, they needed to toss her out, too, because she'd been sitting there longer than Al.

The situation got worse: Another homeless person, a woman who regularly spends hours at a time in the shop, was asked to leave and never return, Dawn said.

Al complied with the stay-away request -- "I'm not going to tempt fate, and I don't need a fight," he says -- and so he gave a friend his mug to take into the Starbucks, buy his coffee and bring it out to him while he waited up the block. But the Starbucks workers recognized Al's cup and refused to fill it.

Dawn decided to escalate. She had the perfect tool. Dawn is one of those folks who chronicles her every move on her blog. "Anything you need to know about me, it's on my blog," she said.

So Dawn posted an item detailing what she'd seen and heard. The store managers quickly started to feel the heat -- from customers who knew that several homeless people hang out at the coffee place on Wisconsin Avenue NW without causing any trouble, and from Mandrake Sumners, an outreach worker for the Friendship Place service center for the homeless, a couple of blocks from the Starbucks.

By last week, Starbucks was in damage-control mode. Dawn got calls from Seattle headquarters and from a regional manager, assuring her that the Tenleytown managers had erred and asking her to remove her blog posting.

Starbucks would not allow the two store managers to talk with me. The coffee chain's regional marketing manager, Carter Bentzel, said the company has no problem with homeless people as customers. "If the customers were told not to come back, we apologize for that," she said. "The store manager recognizes that there was a miscommunication."

Bentzel said there is no limit on how long any customers may stay once they've made a purchase. To make amends, the Tenleytown store plans to increase its food and beverage donations to Friendship Place and other groups that help the homeless.

But Dawn and Al remain perturbed. Dawn was outraged by the presumption that the Starbucks staff could discern who is homeless. "You have three people in there right now who are homeless and you don't know it," she told a manager. "And if you catch me on a bad Saturday, I'm going to look homeless. Are you throwing me out?"

Al, meanwhile, doesn't feel comfortable entering the store. He'll sit outside and drink coffee if someone is buying, but he'd rather not go where he's not wanted.

If you can get past the untamed, filthy look, Al will break every stereotype you've ever had about homeless people. He audits classes at Georgetown Law. He's big on texting messages. He has a blog. He writes poetry. "I really don't understand the prejudice against homeless people," he said.

Al, who is 60, and Dawn, 36, first met at the D.C. Armory back when it was being used as a collection point for donations to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Al was there to donate $14 he'd panhandled on the streets of Washington. "They needed it more than I did," he said.

Like public libraries, Starbucks can be a magnet for people who have nowhere else to go. Like librarians, Starbucks managers struggle to find legal and moral ways to distinguish between those who are just hanging out and those who are disturbing others.

In this case, the managers went too far. They jumped on a loyal customer whom they woefully underestimated.

So now they're sorry. But here's the part I can't get over: Both Dawn and Al, for all their outrage, are fully committed to spending their time and money at Starbucks. Even the protest action Dawn came up with adds to the company's bottom line: "Every morning, my goal is to pick up at least two homeless people and bring them to Starbucks, give them money and tell them to 'Go get yourself some coffee.' "

"I like the product," Al said. "If I can't go in, here I am, outside, buying $6 or $8 of it, one coffee after another. I just don't understand why they want to worsen my situation when I've already lost everything I own, except my pride."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company