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13 years of community-based healing at Recovery Cafe

Here, people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and addiction find community

Courtesy of Recovery Cafe

“My problem isn’t that I couldn’t pay my rent or I left my place. I didn’t have a place,” Mike Perry remembers of his life when he first got to Seattle in the late ‘80s. “Homelessness—at the time, I was fine with it, I didn’t care. But when I got into the point where I got into treatment two years ago, I cared. I didn’t want to be homeless anymore.”

Perry talked to us at Recovery Cafe, an unassuming, one-story brick building at the corner of Boren and Denny. The structure should stand out more than it does, sitting on its own traffic island and surrounded by taller buildings, but it seems to blend into the background.

Inside, a central kiosk houses an espresso station, or self-serve coffee and water. A small buffet provides some self-serve meals. It’s the tables around the “cafe” part that seem like the more key part of the programming though—some occupied by people playing games or talking, others by someone just having a rest. On colorful walls around the room, decorations spell words like “love” and “forgiveness.”

In the corner, some members work in a small computer lab. Sometimes the cafe hosts open mic nights.

It’s here that Perry found a community of people going through the same thing—not here, physically. Back when he first came to the cafe, it was at Second and Bell in Belltown, where they first opened in 2004. He came at first for AA meetings in 2006, but slowly got to know the community in the cafe.

This is what the cafe’s entire model is based on: community.

“We have people that have lost in such traumatic ways that without the support of community there’s no hope of rebuilding the life that they want to live,” founding director Killian Noe explained. “The reality is that’s true of every one of us when we’ve suffered trauma and we’ve lost life as we knew it. None of us can put that together by ourselves.”

The cafe, says Noe, provides a support system when that kind of support—the kind we get from our friends and our family—is hard to come by.

“The difference is that a lot of our members don’t have others in the way of family or friendships, and so this becomes their family,” said Noe. “This becomes their home.”

Their model is spreading. Through the Recovery Cafe Network, they’re supporting people in five cities at a time in starting their own cafes. So far, new cafes have sprouted up in Tacoma, Everett, Spokane, and San Jose.

Here’s how it works: When someone comes to the door, they can be a guest for the day, as long as they’re drug and alcohol free. Noe told us that one member, knowing he wasn’t sober, stayed far away from the door, telling them, “that space needs to stay sacred.”

“If it’s obvious that a person isn’t drug and alcohol free,” said Noe, “then we ask them to please, please, we really want you to come back, and in the meantime we have AA and AA meetings down the hall on our same property, but with a different entrance.”

After they’re a guest for a day, they’re invited to come back the next day.

“We are in second, third generation of membership,” said Ruby Takushi, an addition psychologist, Recovery Cafe co-founder, and current director of programs. “It’s people that know us that told someone else they know us that told someone else they know us.”

When someone becomes a member of the Recovery Cafe, they join a “recovery circle”—a small group of about six that meets to check in and provide support.

“These are people that have shared experience,” said Tukashi. “There’s an authenticity about that sharing that is really humbling.”

That sharing can just be talking about their day or their struggles—or it can mean sharing coping strategies, providing encouragement, or sharing tips for moving within a system that can be tough to navigate. A city survey earlier this year found that many people experiencing homelessness found the system challenging for a number of reasons, including long waiting lists, challenges, and inexperienced case management.

“Once people feel safe enough to share their struggle, there’s kindness and there’s generosity,” said Takushi. “Nobody wants other people to be struggling in the way that they are.”

Perry said he found housing through other cafe members. “There’s always someone here to talk to that’s going through exactly what you’re going through or has been there,” he explained. “But you won’t know unless you speak up, and that’s why these circles… you can sit around with five or six, maybe seven of your own peers in a small setting and share what’s going on with you instead of talking to 50 people.”

The cafe doesn’t provide housing itself, and that’s by design. When Noe and Takushi were building the program, they found organizations that provide housing, although Noe clarifies, “Are there enough low-income housing units? No. Absolutely no.”

“What they did need, and this is what Ruby and I have become to understand at deeper and deeper levels, is a group that would hold people who are in that very fragile place when they first come in here, when they first come in here,” she continued.

While the circles are at the core of the cafe’s model, they also provide education through what they call the School of Recovery. Classes range from addiction recovery to creative writing to knitting, plus fitness classes, like the walking club. The yoga class has been especially popular—a few members have even gotten their certification, Tukashi tells us.

For Perry, though, it’s all about staying out of his head. “What the cafe has allowed me to do is come in here four days a week, eight or nine hours a day, and allow me to stay out of my head by staying busy,” he expla. “ I still come here when I can, and I just jump right in. Instead of picking up a beer I pick up a broom.”

When people “stabilize in their mental health, in their physical health, in their employment, in their relationships in all the things that make up a good life, the same thing everybody wants,” Noe explained, it helps people “stabilize in the housing when it becomes available to them. And I say when, because sometimes the wait is excruciatingly long.”

“Looking for housing takes time, getting housing takes time,” explained Perry. “It’s like a job. looking for a job. it’s job in itself. it’s the same thing with housing, it’s a job. the thing about it is you don’t have to do nothing alone… You have resources, and the resources are people.”

“If you’re running around trying to do something on your own it’s probably not going to happen—speaking from experience, you’re going to give up, say eff this, I don’t need this,” he said.

Even once you’re in housing, said Takushi, it’s good to have that community to support the transition: “It’s not always ideal, it may be a different living situation that they’re not accustomed to or they might need different health supports that aren’t available.”

Noe gave one example: One woman was a regular at the cafe was hospitalized for mental health crises nine times in a year. After joining a recovery circle, she “began to stabilize”—and even after finding her apartment, others in her circle checked in on her to make sure she was handling everything okay.

“I was in recovery circle with her—they’re small groups where people are deeply-known and held,” remembered Noe. “When I was in group with her, whenever she would start hearing voices again, members of the group would [say], you’re doing too much, let’s take a step back.”

That woman, Noe said, worked with the cafe for nine years, and eventually graduated from college.

Perry went back to school himself recently. “I’m in the last phase of my CDL training, drive big rigs. Hopefully—no, I’m not going to say that. Next Wednesday I’m going to have my CDL,” he told us. “The beautiful part of this isn’t even that I’m getting to the end or that I’m getting CDL, it’s the journey. It’s that for once in my life, I didn’t quit… and now I’m about to see the fruits of my labor by not quitting, no matter how many times I failed.”

But it hasn’t always been easy—Perry’s no stranger to relapses. “Last time I left the cafe I was gone for two and a half years,” he said.

But eventually, he came back to his community at the cafe. “When I came back from that 2 and a half year relapse, when I came through those doors, they met me where I was. And by them doing that with love and support and patience, I was able to get enough confidence to go to school—not just pass, just going to school was big for me.”

“We might have all the same problems, you might get [help] before I get it, but we’re all going to keep supporting you,” said Perry. “And then once you get it, you can be that much more supportive to someone who’s trying to get where you are. This is the beauty of the cafe as I see it.”