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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Starbucks, ‘a window into America,’ closing in Spokane neighborhood known for problems

The Starbucks at 172 S. Division Street is closing Oct. 23 for safety concerns.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In the end, lattes and Spokane’s homeless issues couldn’t co-exist.

Starbucks confirmed that it is closing its store at 172 S. Division St. as part of a growing list of closures announced across the nation related to concerns for the safety of employees and customers.

That very store hosted an event by Spokane police this July, three months after the Starbucks closed its lobby to walk-in traffic, to discuss criminal activity and issues regarding homelessness.

“Starbucks, in many ways, is a window into America,” company spokesman Sam Jefferies said. “Our partners every day witness the challenges facing our communities.

“Those are challenges that include a growing mental health crisis, substance abuse, chronic homelessness and issues magnified by COVID.”

The conflict between business interests and how to deal with a growing homeless population has morphed into political battles.

Tiffany Smiley, a Pasco Republican who is challenging U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, released an ad last month with Smiley standing in front of a shuttered Starbucks in Seattle.

“These doors are closed because it’s too dangerous to ask employees to work here anymore,” Smiley said.

Jefferies, the Starbucks spokesman, said he was not aware of any single incident that led to the upcoming closure of the Spokane store on Oct. 23. He noted that employees at the store have been offered the opportunity to transfer to nearby locations.

“I would say that safety and security was certainly one of the factors taken into account here,” he said.

But neighbor Hallie Burchinal, executive director and co-founder of Compassionate Addiction Treatment, at 168 S. Division St., said she remembers a major police response in March where she offered displaced Starbucks workers a place to shelter.

Spokane police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said she did not have time Wednesday afternoon to find records of the March incident, but said the neighborhood has had its share of police responses.

“That area is an area where criminal activity has been a problem, along with homelessness,” Humphreys said. “I know the mayor (Nadine Woodward) and the city has worked hard with businesses in that area. It’s a priority to deal with what we can to keep businesses vibrant and safe.”

Burchinal’s nonprofit earlier this year moved its offices into the building next to the complex that houses the soon-to-be-closed Starbucks.

Her organization attempts to cover gaps in services by providing immediate care for people suffering addictions and experiencing homelessness who want a way off the street.

And her relationship with Starbucks employees started out well.

The coffee company donated a large table and several small tables to Compassionate Addiction Treatment to use with its clients.

A previous store manager “referred to our community members experiencing homelessness as ‘Our family,’ ” Burchinal said. “I was very moved.”

Starbucks employees nominated CAT for a Good Neighbor Grant of $1,000 that it received this past August from the Starbucks Foundation, she said.

Then not long after the police incident at the store, Spokane police Officer Micah Prim arrived at CAT and handed Burchinal a piece of paper: a nuisance letter.

Chronic problems

The letter, dated June 24, indicated that CAT’s office “has been identified as a potential chronic nuisance property as it continues to interfere with the quiet enjoyment of the surrounding neighborhood.

“Recent reports indicate an increase in nuisance activity at your property,” the letter states.

Burchinal immediately hired attorney Jeffry Finer, who agreed to meet with city officials to discuss the issue. The city postponed that meeting and it has never been rescheduled, Finer said.

Burchinal noted that a fence was finished about a week after receiving the nuisance letter that blocked off an area behind her building that Spokane police earlier identified as a problem area.

“It feels really at odds that an agency created to meet gaps in care for people experiencing homelessness, who are seeking addiction-recovery help, is then being looked at as a nuisance,” she said.

Finer said he understands the rub with city officials. CAT is located within a block-and-a-half of House of Charity and several other organizations that provide social services to a troubled population.

Any driver on Division Street or Second Avenue can see dozens of persons who seem lost at any time of the day, he said.

“So many services are provided in that neighborhood … that portion of downtown is going to have more impacts than other portions,” Finer said.

He said he understands the business decision to close the coffee shop.

“It may be that the community doesn’t have the ability to support a Starbucks in a neighborhood that has been plagued with homelessness and mental health issues for several years,” he said.

But, CAT is one of the organizations designed to give people a path off the streets, he said.

“They are not the draw. They are not the originator of the problem,” Finer said. “And, they were happy that Starbucks looked like it was going to be able to stay.”

Burchinal, who herself experienced homelessness in the 1980s, said it’s disheartening to see politicians use her clients’ problems in political ads seeking to score points with voters.

“Our work is about helping people feel hope, because we know that people won’t enter recovery if they don’t have hope,” she said. “We are feeling as though we are working so hard and then being faced with negativity, rather than support, from our local government.”