A little over a year ago, Kelly and Seth Kelley noticed Fort Collins’ homeless population growing steadily, both in number and in needs. As new residents on the south side of town during the MAX bus’s first few years in service, they observed its popularity among the travelers and began brainstorming ways to get involved in the community. It occurred to the Kelleys that employment is perhaps the most efficient way of helping the homeless, so with the help of the city and partners like Hand Up and Homeless Gear, they opened a homeless-staffed coffee shop called RedTail Coffee in Fort Collins’ south transit center.
The Kelley’s mission is simple, yet powerful and necessary in a city where homelessness is constant. Only the homeless are employed at RedTail, which provides them with job experiences and the income they need to seek affordable housing like RedTail Ponds, a nearby low-income housing project. By hiring employees from off the street and allowing them to earn the tools it takes to find a home and to potentially advance in their careers, RedTail coffee creates a pragmatic solution to homelessness that should be adopted by other businesses in Fort Collins.
K. Kelley said the homeless count in Fort Collins was 350 last summer, a number I think could be much fewer if more local businesses sought to assimilate the homeless with their own employees, rather than rejecting their applications based on their living situation. Sure, reliability is needed and experience is required most of the time, but no amount of credibility can match the motivation of a homeless person who truly seeks a better life. And I would be willing to bet that a newly-hired homeless employee with the intentions of gaining job experience and finding a home would be a much more diligent worker than the experienced teenager taking selfies in the bathroom.
To me, it seems a matter of misjudgment and stereotyping of the homeless community that most others are unwilling to lend them a helping hand, whether in the hiring process or in everyday encounters. I cannot even imagine the amount of humility it takes to stand on a street corner with a sign asking for help, given how hard it sometimes is for me to ask for help in class or at work. Most often, these people are not the dirty drug addicts society assumes them to be, but are instead unsure where their next meal will come from or whether they will eat at all that day. This is where we as bystanders can help.
In the next few weeks, RedTail Coffee will adopt the “pending coffee” system, in which customers can purchase an extra, “pending” cup of coffee for the next customer who cannot afford it. This idea has been tried at various coffee shops lately with scattered outcomes and reviews, however, the objective remains the same. RedTail coffee offers many other ways for the community to get involved with its mission in addition to the “pending coffee,” including its “take it or leave it” box for winter clothing donations and its “lending library,” where visitors are invited to take or leave a book at their convenience.
Within the last few years, Fort Collins has seen the growth of these types of establishments, often in the nonprofit form, and continues to strengthen with each upcoming one. It is my hope that RedTail Coffee provides the needed inspiration and motivation for other businesses to join their mission.
Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.