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This New Coffee Business Is Helping Silicon Valley’s Homeless Help Themselves

Kartma turns commercial cafe culture into a tool for social good.

Richard Hess and Benjamin De Soto. Image by Naila Kelani

Silicon Valley is notorious for its class disparity; the same areas known for their booming tech businesses and extravagant wealth also maintain some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Since the dismantling of the Bay Area’s largest homeless encampment (“The Jungle”) last year, local policymakers have begun a more targeted approach to providing aid and housing to the chronically homeless.

But government can move slowly. And the Downtown Streets Team, an organization that has been providing services to the homeless in San Jose for over a decade, is looking for more immediate results. Last month saw the opening of their latest project, Kartma, a coffee cart meant to provide employment opportunities to people struggling with homelessness.

Image by Naila Kelani

According to Rob Sanchez, Kartma’s project manger, there are many members of the Downtown Streets Team who receive housing vouchers but are still priced out of local housing, which is why he believes in the importance of providing a living wage. Kartma pays $15 per hour, with each employee putting in an average 30-35 hours per week. Minimum wage in San Jose is $10.30. There has been a recent initiative to raise it incrementally to $15 by 2021, but as with the housing vouchers, institutional efforts cannot always take effect fast enough.

Richard Hess, one of the three employees currently working at Kartma, worked in the coffee industry for 20 years before a personal tragedy struck that left him homeless. Like most members of the Downtown Streets Team, he was referred by word of mouth and started as a volunteer, working 20 hours a week. Although he was not legally employed at the time and couldn’t receive a paycheck, he was regularly given a stipend card redeemable at grocery stores that allowed him to take care of his daily needs.

But with the advent of Kartma, Hess is no longer a volunteer; he’s an employee. The Team provides resources for self-improvement and helps members get into a work routine to develop a strong professional foundation; they frequently hold open-house interviews and job fairs. To apply for a position at Kartma, Hess went through a formal interview process and, along with two others, got the job. All applicants, regardless of whether they get the job, are required to have food handler certification. Newly hired employees go on to receive training in coffee preparation sponsored by local coffee roaster Chromatic Coffee—which even developed a special blend for Kartma’s exclusive use.

The Team’s funding is pulled from a number of sources, but Kartma has been awarded a large grant by the Knight Foundation, whose San Jose chapter frequently solicits and commissions projects that contribute to a vibrant “street life,” meant to entertain and create a sense of community for an incoming class of wealthy young professionals. “We all live here, and we all share spaces,” Sanchez says. “So making those spaces and offering a service to the community is one of the ways we can change perceptions and reintegrate.”

Richard Hess. Image by Naila Kelani

While the presence of specialty coffeehouses and their novelty spin-offs—like coffee bikes and other twists on the old street-side coffee stand—are among the most reliable litmus tests of a given area’s level of gentrification, Kartma is still able, in its own small way, to undermine the exclusivity of specialty coffee culture, helping to bridge class disparities in an immediate, sustainable way.

Since opening, Kartma has enjoyed a warm public reaction. The Kartma team members tend to be boisterous and upbeat, drawing in new customers and building a base of regulars (Hess jokingly charges one patron “2 million dollars” for a beverage). But even beyond salesmanship and coffee, there are passersby who are just intrigued by the concept. “I’ve even had people with Starbucks in their hands, and they’ll hear my speech and they immediately just donate,” says Hess, “even though they’ve chosen … Starbucks or Peet’s and they aren’t ready to try us yet, they still donate, they like our mission.”

Kartma’s team members want people to know that just because someone has been homeless before, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to work, or that they aren’t deserving of a good life. “It’s honorable … to know that we’re doing something, that we’re getting a positive image,” emphasizes Benjamin De Soto, another Kartma employee. “We deserve a chance. We deserve an opportunity.”

Image via Indiegogo

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