Council for the Homeless has crafted a new guide for business owners and their employees who interact with homeless people. It’s simultaneously a tip sheet, how-to guide and list of phone numbers for major resources.
“Business owners are faced with the reality of wanting to be helpful and needing to monitor their property and business for safety and customer access,” Kate Budd, the nonprofit’s executive director, said in a news release. “Our organization advocates that people experiencing homelessness be treated with respect and compassion, and we also recognize businesses have valid concerns and want to do the right thing when it comes to interacting with people who may be exhibiting disruptive behavior.”
Laura Ellsworth, strategic partnerships manager at Council for the Homeless, led the project called the Business Toolkit on Homelessness.
She said someone brought her a copy of a toolkit created for small businesses in San Diego. In March, Ellsworth began working on a version tailored to Clark County businesses. She brought rough drafts of the pamphlet to groups such as the Downtown Camas Business Association, Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Hazel Dell/Salmon Creek Business Association, Vancouver’s Downtown Association and Southwest Washington Community Health Advocate and Peer Support Network.
“I really tried to get input from all over the county,” Ellsworth said.
iQ Credit Union and Printing Expressly For You helped sponsor the pamphlet, which cost $250 to design and print. Danette LaChapelle, senior vice president of marketing at iQ Credit Union, said they wanted to support the work Council for the Homeless is doing and appreciate that the nonprofit it working with businesses to find solutions.
The toolkit is intended to be used as a reference so business owners feel more prepared when they find themselves in different scenarios with homeless patrons.
There’s a list of do’s and don’ts: Do make eye contact and talk kindly to people who are without homes. Do refer people to the Vancouver Navigation Center. Do not offer food or money, unless you are equipped and willing to handle repeat requests. Do not assume people know your expectations.
The toolkit also includes steps to follow if someone is sleeping/loitering in the front door of a business or if someone has walked into a business exhibiting disruptive mental health symptoms.
“It helps with some of that stress in the moment,” Ellsworth said.
Ideally, she said, it will increase understanding among business owners — who are not social workers — and reduce the need for police response.
Stacie Marshall, who has been vocal about her struggles dealing with homeless patrons at Fabulous Flippin’ Treasures, found the guide “belittling.”
“There are things on here that I already do,” she said.
Her business, located off Fourth Plain Boulevard in central Vancouver, has had problems since the opening of the Vancouver Navigation Center, she said. Some homeless patrons come in her shop and follow the rules. Others are belligerent, she said, prompting her to call police.
The business toolkit suggests installing good lighting and locking or turning off exterior power outlets. But after Marshall installed metal locking outlet covers outside her business, they were torn off twice. It’s frustrating to spend money making improvements and putting up ‘no trespassing’ signs that make the business less welcoming, she said. Since she doesn’t own the building she can’t make lighting improvements.
“This is my life investment. I don’t want to let it go down the drain,” Marshall said. “I don’t think their toolkit it helpful to my business at all.”
Business for Good San Diego is behind the original toolkit that inspired Council for the Homeless.
When asked what prompted its creation, Executive Director Karim Bouris said with a laugh: Mass confusion.
He learned how little information gets into the hands of San Diego’s small business owners, who don’t always have the time or overhead to attend meetings and be part of groups. There needed to be a vehicle to get information to them.
“They can be great allies for solving the problem, but you have to find a way to get to them on their turf,” Bouris said.
The toolkit was created about a year ago and includes a pullout designed for frontline staff and additional information for business owners. Bouris emphasized that the document was meant to launch conversations among businesses and generate more community buy-in on the issue.
“The purpose of the toolkit wasn’t necessarily to say, ‘Here you go. We have all the answers,’” he said.
Rather, it gave guidelines for how to address homeless patrons and situations that may occur.
Council for the Homeless is distributing hard copies of its pamphlet, which is also available online at www.councilforthehomeless.org/business-toolkit. Business owners who want in-person training can contact Ellsworth at 360-993-9526 or email@example.com.