Homeless Cafes

Homeless Cafes

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Homeless Cafes

There seems to be a welcome trend unfolding in social services for the homeless. In place of large, impersonal soup kitchens, small cafes are springing up with a philosophy that is all too rare-treat the homeless with respect and dignity, and maybe they'll respond to available services.

It began with Cafe 458 in Atlanta in 1988, which since has served as a model for similar cafes across the country. Cafe 458 was founded to serve good meals to small groups of homeless individuals, offer a comprehensive array of services, and empower those who eat at the Cafe. Part of its strategy to empower homeless persons is to treat them with dignity-the staff refer to those who eat there as guests, not clients, food is served on real dishes, artwork adorns the walls, and fresh flowers brighten each table. The Cafe serves only 28 guests at a time, all of whom are referred by area social service agencies. To be referred to the Cafe, clients must not be actively using drugs, have no recent history of violence, and have a strong desire to improve their lives. On the average, guests regularly eat at the Cafe for six months before they are able to find employment and/or housing.

Since 1988, Cafe 458 has served only 1,000 people, but the staff considers its small numbers its strength. As Nancy Palchanis, executive director, explains, "It is not a feeding program. It is about empowerment. Soup kitchens feed too many people. Our advantage is in the small size." The small size of Cafe 458, and others like it, is translating into success in the lives of their guests . For example, The Bread and Roses Cafe, run by a social service agency in Venice, California, enrolls some of its clients in a six-week intensive course in restaurant work and 20 hours of on-thejob training. Sixty-seven of the 112 people who have completed the program are now employed by restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

Fortunately for some of Chicago's homeless, they too have a similar place to turn-Inspiration Cafe, located in the Uptown community. Since 1991, Inspiration Cafe has served good-tasting and healthy meals to homeless individuals in Uptown and has provided them with a variety of comprehensive services.

The Cafe was founded by Lisa Nigro, a former homeless in her community. Nigro began feeding the homeless in Uptown by carting around a red wagon filled with bagels and juice that she would serve to people waiting in lines at local shelters and soup kitchens.

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After visiting Cafe 458 in Atlanta, she was determined to establish something similar in Chicago. With the help of a local real estate developer, she secured a building on Wilson Avenue and began restaurant operations in 1991.

Like Cafe 458, Inspiration Cafe serves 24 guests at a time, all of whom are referred by Uptown social service agencies. At the request of their guests, the staff gradually implemented several social services, all offered by the Cafe's staff and extensive volunteer base. Its services include one-on-one tutoring in mathematics, computers, GED preparation, and literacy training; weekly support groups; open Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings; and monthly consultations with attorneys from the Legal Assistance Foundation. In addition, volunteers from the Junior League of Chicago conduct a variety of weekly workshops, and a case manager from Travelers and Immigrants Aid regularly helps guests with their housing and job placement goals. The staff has also recruited a variety of health care providers to offer their services free of charge to the Cafe's guests. Lastly, the Cafe frequently offers its guests donated tickets to a variety of cultural events.

The Cafe consistently finds innovative ways to respond to the needs of their guests and the community at large. For example, it runs a "Mobile Pantry," a food-networking program in which Cafe volunteers pick up food donations and deliver them to the Cafe and to other shelters, soup kitchens, and churches that feed the homeless in Uptown. In addition, Nigro is planning to open a bakery that will serve as a steady source of revenue for the Cafe and will offer employment opportunities to many of its guests.

The Cafe has been instrumental in helping most of its guests find housing, employment or both. Its success lies in its small size and the commitment of the staff and volunteers. Since they serve only 24 guests at a time, the staff is able to provide intensive and comprehensive support geared to each individual's needs. Furthermore, the Cafe's congenial environment helps its guests to feel secure enough to take advantage of available services. As one of the staff remarked, "Some of our best ideas for services come from our guests while we're all sharing a meal."
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