Homelessness solutions are brewing at this Long Beach coffee shop

Customers chat, work and sip coffee at Wrigley Coffee in Long Beach, which recently opened as part of a program to help train people who face housing insecurity. Photo by Susan Valot.

Wrigley Coffee in Long Beach may look like a hip neighborhood coffee shop, with its gleaming new espresso machine, shelves of leafy houseplants, and freshly painted mural on the wall. But it’s more than that. The shop on Willow Street, which opened in February, serves up solutions to the area’s “invisible homeless” problem along with lattes and pastries.

It all started one day last year when Andrew Nishimoto, the executive director of Family Promise of the South Bay, a nonprofit that helps get unhoused families into steady homes, was taking a walk through the Wrigley neighborhood with a colleague. They noticed a “for lease” sign on a long-time coffee shop that didn’t make it through the pandemic, and Nishimoto had an idea.

“What if we not only revitalized the community with a new craft specialty coffee shop, but also made it a place where we can employ people that need a little bit more development in their work training?” he wondered.

So the idea to create Wrigley Coffee was born. The shop gives job training to Family Promise of the South Bay’s clients experiencing homelessness.   It also provides them with stability, income and training, while the social service arm of the organization works to find them housing.

Andrew Nishimoto, the executive director of Family Promise of the South Bay and general manager of Wrigley Coffee, came up with the idea of a training program after spotting a “for lease” sign on a closed neighborhood coffee shop. Photo by Susan Valot.

“We often deal with the ‘invisible homeless,’” Nishimoto says. “When you’re a family experiencing homelessness, you’re not on the street, you know, pronouncing that you’re homeless. What you do is — you’re hiding. You’re finding safe places to park at night. You’re showering at the beach, or maybe you have a pass to a gym and you’re kind of doing that. And when you go to school, you’re telling your kids, ‘Don’t tell people you’re homeless.’ You’re hiding these things, whether it’s because you want to protect your family, whether you’re ashamed, whatever it is.”

Nishimoto says the trauma of this type of housing instability for families can have long-term consequences for children, leading to problems like addiction and mental illness.

He hoped a coffee shop with a social mission could help by providing a support net, using trauma-informed training that allows the new employees to learn how to successfully maneuver a workplace. 

The program at Wrigley Coffee teams unhoused clients with barista mentors. If any incidents at work emotionally trigger a program participant, they can step away to evaluate and deal with the issue. Each week, a community development manager works with them to provide them with tools to deal with those triggers.

There are three trainees in Wrigley Coffee’s first class of workplace development. Each group will spend 12 weeks in the program, and then the nonprofit helps place them into other jobs nearby. The coffee shop has a study room and a community room that hosts events like weekly yoga classes.

Maribel Reyes greets customers and takes an order at Wrigley Coffee. Photo by Susan Valot.

Maribel Reyes is one of the program trainees. She and her family dealt with homelessness before the start of the pandemic, when they were suddenly evicted from a sketchy rental in Carson. Reyes says they couch surfed with family and lived in their car, occasionally saving enough money to stay in a motel.

Reyes tried to find help, but had trouble seeking a shelter.

“None of them accepted us because we’re not from the area,” says Reyes.

They finally got a spot at Family Promise, and now she works side-by-side at Wrigley Coffee with barista Robert Casey, who turned down another coffee shop job to work here because he liked that it wasn’t a big money-making corporation.

“They’re really serving the community and trying to find avenues to really benefit those who are in the community, and those who are disadvantaged,” Casey says.

Baristas Robert Casey and Maribel Reyes work together to create an order at Wrigley Coffee in Long Beach. Photo by Susan Valot.

The idea of businesses created to help communities isn’t new. In fact, it’s popular enough that USC has an entire degree program based on social entrepreneurship. Adlai Wertman helped create the university’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab. He says Gen Z and millennials have grown up with social justice issues, such as climate change, as a regular part of their lives.

“We do have a generation that doesn’t want to separate what they do at work from what they care about,” Wertman says.

Wertman points out that to succeed, nonprofit programs like Wrigley Coffee need to make money just like any other businesses. And they face extra pressure, too.

The expectations seem to be higher for these organizations, with a claim that if this closes, then it must be about the social part of their model,” Wertman says. “But when the coffee shop down the block closes, we just say, ‘It’s really hard to open a new restaurant.’”

Wertman says the biggest challenge is raising the money to start the business, which Wrigley Coffee has already done. Nishimoto is confident he can make it a success.

Reyes says when she first started barista training there, she was nervous. But she is motivated by the people supporting her around  the shop.

That’s what got me [to] not give up,” Reyes says.