Homeless Cafes Serve Self-Help
By Jane Braxton Little
A group of guests follows a waiter to a table for four, orders drinks and settles down to a power lunch surrounded by fresh flowers, jazz and art. Instead of brokering corporate trades and financial ventures, however, the deals going down at this table leverage self-respect, and the power is purely personal.
All the diners are homeless.
In cities across the country, cafes are serving homeless people nutritious meals in safe, gracious settings as an alternative to the soup-line handout. By catering far more than food, the approximately 20 alternative cafes from Los Angeles to New York are nourishing pride, self-esteem and friendship.
"Meals are a service but not what changes people's homelessness and poverty and hunger. Relationships change people's lives," says Genny Nelson, co-founder and executive director of Sisters of the Road Cafe in Portland, Ore.
In an era when politicians are withdrawing support from public welfare programs, cafes for the homeless, sometimes called "alternative" cafes, are reaching out to one person at a time. Some serve 25 homeless people a week, others 300 a day. Some require a reservation, others are open to anyone. All work on shoestring budgets generally funded by local grants of less than $10,000.
Their primary similarity is a shared commitment to delivering dinners with dignity and reconnecting the homeless with a community.
"Our purpose is to create a safe nurturing space where people can focus on reclaiming their lives. We created an environment where that hard work can be done," says A.B. Short, founder of Cafe 458 in Atlanta.
Named for the address, which once housed a drive-up liquor store, Cafe 458 serves guests who make reservations after a social service agency referral. In exchange for the meals, the homeless participants agree to enter a variety of self-help programs.
Each individual sets personal goals, says Christopher Bean, a full-time volunteer at Cafe 458. Some are achingly simple: getting a haircut, replacing eyeglasses, acquiring a driver's license. Others are lifetime challenges: giving up drugs and alcohol.
"They want you to go within yourself and find out who you are," says Wayman Mitchell, a Cafe 458 guest. "All you've got to do is be willing." The program emphasizes goal setting as a way to empower its guests, says Bean. "And we hold them to their goals."
The conditions of acceptance to an alternative cafe are often demanding. At Inspiration Cafe in Chicago, participants must not be active substance abusers. Meals are mandatory. So are support groups and life skills classes.
"Inspiration Cafe is not really about getting a meal. It's about getting hooked into a community," says Emily Brady, a spokeswoman for the cafe on Chicago's North Side.
Earl Garrett was hooked from the moment he walked into Inspiration Cafe. Homeless and eating at a soup line, Garrett began attending Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the cafe. His counselor suggested he apply for meals at Inspiration.
Garrett was immediately impressed by the atmosphere. "For the first time in my life I felt some people cared about me. I felt good. I found some hope," Garrett says.
Like many who become guests of alternative cafes, Garrett was a substance abuser before he went to Inspiration Cafe. Between 22 and 65 percent of the nation's homeless people suffer from addiction disorders, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Despite the severity of the problem, no federal programs target funds for substance abuse among the homeless, says Michael Stoops, a Washington, D.C., field organizer with the homeless coalition.
Atlanta's Cafe 458 launched its own residential recovery program to complement the AA and NA meetings held three times a week next door to the cafe. Ten men live in a clean and safe home provided by the Oakhurst Baptist Church, a partner in Cafe 458 since its founding in 1988. The residents attend intense group and individual therapy sessions. To be accepted they must commit to participating for a minimum of six months.
"That's an eternity to most homeless but if they can't handle six months they're not ready. This is a lifetime commitment," Short says.
Cafe 458's recovery program has produced striking results, according to Morehouse College professor Harold Braithwaite, who conducted a study of the program in the early 1990s. He found that approximately 80% of the 50 mostly crack-cocaine addicted men who completed the program remained drug-free for three years. Nationally, between 80 and 90 percent of those who undergo addiction therapy for crack cocaine relapse within six months, said Braithwaite.
The new-generation cafes have been successful because they break down the stereotypes between housed and homeless people, Stoops says. As an alternative to the "dehumanizing atmosphere" of the typical soup line -- "church volunteers on one side of the counter and homeless people on the other" -- they offer a ray of hope, Stoops says.
The goal is to break the cycle of homelessness by creating a sense of belonging to something again. At Portland's Sisters of the Road Cafe, the neighborhood is as much a part of the agenda as the 300 meals it serves each day. The oldest of the nation's alternative cafes, founded in 1979, Sisters does not screen its guests, who are mostly from the surrounding Skid Row district.
Named after the hobo slang for women who hitch rides on freight cars, Sisters charges $1.25 a meal or $1 in food stamps for homeless people. But it also offers work in exchange for food. With credit at $5 an hour for such jobs as helping with recycling, bussing tables, clean-up and window washing, a guest can earn enough for a meal in 15 minutes, says Christine Fry, Sisters' development manager.
What distinguishes Sisters and other alternative cafes from standard soup lines is their investment in individual lives, says Nelson, a co-founder. They are geared to organize communities, not dispense social services from the "advantaged" to the "disadvantaged."
"We don't make an assumption that one group has power and the other are clients. No one has a monopoly on truth," Nelson says.
Although they offer a welcome alternative to traditional soup-line handouts, the new-generation cafes are not making a dent in the nation's homeless phenomenon, says Stoops, the homeless coalition representative. As many as 1.5 million more Americans are homeless now than in 1980, when the earliest of the cafes opened. Genuine change will come only when traditional social service providers "rethink how they feed people -- how they treat people," Stoops says. But for the individuals who have tasted power lunches at alternative cafes, the commitment to understand each person's problems and to find unique solutions has changed their lives forever. By offering the tools for change, the cafe programs have allowed hundreds to start the hard work of transforming themselves.
"They teach you how to live -- humility, patience, acceptance. They teach you how to give back," says Cafe 458's Mitchell.
People who find the demands too much usually aren't ready to alter their lives, says Garrett, the Inspiration Cafe alumnus. "For me, the cafe changed my perspective on life. There are no miracles here. I'm doing OK today and that's enough."
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