Working the counter in Street Bean Espresso's bright, airy minimalist-style space in Belltown are young adults in transition from street life. The newly opened café was established by New Horizons Ministries to provide street youth with job training, mentoring, and a year or so of solid work experience that will let them earn credentials for future employment.
Stephanie, 18, has worked at Street Bean since early October, when she began her training. “At first all I could do was burn myself on the steamer,” she told me. “I could never do anything in my life, especially work for an employer. Before Street Bean I’d never had a job interview, and what was a resume? I used to be a prostitute.”
Her first weeks at the café were difficult. “I dropped cups on the floor. A voice in my head kept telling me, ‘You'll never be able to do this, you're just a ho,’ but after three weeks I was steaming milk, making espresso, everything! On our big opening day the judge who sent my pimp to prison came in here and was astonished how I’ve changed, how good I’m doing.”
She still struggles, still lives in "a really bad area. And every day I face the fact that now I’m a square, a regular person. My caseworker and I sing a song together about being square people, so I don't mind. I’m paid $8.55 an hour here compared to hundreds of dollars a day on the street, but now I get to keep my clothes on when I work. I go to my own home at night, and next Monday I take my GED exams! I should have a new name, I feel so new.”
Stephanie’s world at 15 years of age consisted of her pimp and Aurora Avenue motels, until Hannah, an outreach worker from New Horizons, gradually developed a relationship with her. “When I was an Aurora girl,” Stephanie said, “Hannah and the others always came around to give the girls condoms and wipes, and we talked. Me and Hannah are best friends now.” That was how Stephanie’s new life began.
“What these kids need most is relationships,” New Horizons development director Edward Sumner told me, “even more than specific services. Our mission is to be in relationship with homeless and street youth so that we can equip them to live a better life.” Sumner described a continuum of care at New Horizons that begins with outreach.
“Westlake Center, the downtown core, the Ave in the U District — we meet kids where they are, on their turf, on their terms, and give them an alternative to relationships with other people than those on the street," he said. "We sit with them, talk with them, build a dialogue, share what we have at our drop-in center — food, showers, laundry, toothbrushes. Because of where they're coming from, they don't always just hook up and come back.” But if they return a few times, they gradually feel a sense of attachment. “That’s our priority. We want our kids to feel known, affirmed, and loved throughout our relationship with them.”
At the New Horizons drop-in center, continued Sumner, “They have a chance to turn off the survival switch and ask ‘Who am I?’ — the kind of self-discovery process these adolescents can’t do when they’re hungry and cold, when their boots are rotting off their feet. They have a chance to explore activities like photography or kayaking.” After a while, many gravitate toward the next step, being mentored in life skills. “These kids are unemployed because they don't have the adaptive abilities others learn when growing up, like punctuality, hygiene, receiving feedback, asking in advance for time off — the kinds of things that are deal-breakers in any job.” So six in-house New Horizons jobs are staffed every quarter by four at-risk youth in the mentoring phase, giving 24 of them practical work experience each year.
The final step is working at Street Bean. “We’ve created sustainable, supportive employment for young adults transitioning from street life. They've maintained a relationship with us, developed their skills, taken the steps, are engaged — they’re ready for a position based on the relationship birthed out of New Horizons,” said Sumner.
Street Bean hired its first six employees in October. Linda Ruthruff, associate director of New Horizons for more than 20 years, is the café’s executive director. When I dropped in one day to have a latte and talk with a worker scheduled to start his shift a few minutes later, she was looking a little frazzled. “He’ll probably be in, but …” Ruthruff lifted her hands, palms up. “Things don’t always go smoothly here. He’s in college full-time and has a night job. Sometimes it takes these kids awhile to get themselves organized, and there have to be consequences for not meeting obligations.” She smiled. “That’s part of the program.”
Sumner told me, “These are real jobs, but in a loving and grace-full environment in which they can succeed and step into a new identity.” With New Horizons located directly across the street, “They stay connected with their youth advocate there while they have their Street Bean job, so they continue to feel safe and personally known.”
Personal relationships are critical to making a difference for at-risk youth, said Sumner. “I came from a corporate background — Washington Mutual — and I'm very task-oriented. When I came to New Horizons I wanted a clipboard with bullet points to mark each kid’s progress. I perceived these kids as problems to be solved, not as people to be loved. Get them rehabbed, clean them up, fix them so they meet my expectations. And at first it was baffling to me that at the end of the day, what they desire most is to be loved. Jesus wasn’t building a system. He was hanging out with people and caring about them.”
Some Christian organizations believe their primary job is to share the gospel, added Sumner. “But it’s not enough to say ‘God loves you’ to these kids. If I just do that, I haven’t provided that place where change can happen. And we don’t say, ‘You gotta listen to our sermon to get the soup.’ Almost everything in the lives of the kids we serve is an exchange of some kind. So our sharing of the gospel may be the most non-transactional experience they have. We try to do our work relationally. Someone comes in saying he’s an atheist vampire, we tell him he can find a little garlic and tomato in the fridge. Our kids know we're Jesus people who don’t expect them to pray with us. About us they say, ‘Yeah, they're Christians, but they're pretty cool.’ They call us the New Ho's.”
Billy, who works at Street Bean, is finishing up his first quarter toward an AA degree. “When I turned 18 I came out to my parents and they kicked me out of the house. This was in Oregon. I went hitchhiking, not knowing where. In Eugene I met someone I stayed with for six months, and when that relationship ended I thought I’d go north, start something new.” He arrived in Seattle with only a backpack containing a few clothes. “There were times I'd move in with some random stranger, but otherwise I was sleeping outside in snow in a doorway because the shelters were full. By the time I checked out three shelters there wasn't any point, so I'd sleep up in the UW campus near the law library.”
At Street Bean, Billy said, “I burn myself because I have fat fingers that get stuck in the pitcher handles. We all have to clean up at the end of the day, too. I don't like cleaning the bathrooms.” But without New Horizons and his new job, “I'd probably still be on the corner.” Now, at 21, he lives in a shared house run by the Urban League, and his dream is to get a UW degree in theater. Meanwhile he writes poetry and performs his work in dramatic readings at venues such as the Langston Hughes Community Center.
His parents are slowly reconciling with their son. “I talk to them once a week now. They're more accepting now that I'm far away. When I went down to Oregon for Christmas last year, you could see they're trying to accept me, but you could also see their need to let me know they're not comfortable with me being me. Every time I visit, they’re better, though. My dad's OK with me. My mom’s like, ‘You need to be the tough guy.’ I don't see why I do!”
Stephanie is almost grateful for past hardships. “When I accomplish something, it really means a lot. Also, I've seen so much, and Hannah told me, ‘One day when you’re ready, I want you to come do outreach on the streets with me.’ I think I’m almost ready. If I can help another girl out there, what I did wasn't a total waste.”
Street Bean Espresso opened in early November on Third Avenue at Cedar Street in Belltown, around the corner from Crosscut headquarters.