The founding director ofRecovery Cafe, Killian Noe, served as a volunteer in the Middle East for three years, then began working in Washington D.C., where she started a non-profit calledSamaritan Inns, which provides transitional housing and long-term support for people struggling with addiction. When Killian and her husband moved to Seattle, she wondered, “Okay, I have this experience, what am I to do with my life now?” She visited with a number of local non-profits and found that Seattle had excellent housing providers, but needed a place that provided long-term recovery support from mental health challenges,
Thus, Recovery Cafe was born.
For those lucky enough to want to get sober and to complete a detox, the journey to recovery doesn’t end there. Once you get out of that 30 day or 90 day treatment, after you’re told, “Okay, go on your way, but don’t associate with anyone you ever associated with; don’t go back to the old neighborhoods. And good luck… And go to meetings!” This is where Recovery Cafe fits in: a place of radical hospitality to come and build new social networks, to make new friends, to find accountability and support to rebuild your life after making those first steps towards building a life in recovery.
Recovery Cafe started in 2003 and opened their doors in 2004 at 2nd and Bell, renting space from the Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. Not long after, the building decided to remodel. “We were given an opportunity to really dream,” says David Uhl, the Resource Raising Manager, who runs the monthly tour of Recovery Cafe with Jeff King, “so let’s dream big, let’s see what we can do! We were able to buy this building, remodel it, and basically tripled our capacity. We now serve about 360 individuals through our program at any given time and serve an additional number of people through our 12 step programs, partnerships with other providers and School for Recovery”
The Recovery Cafe is a low-barrier community. One of the only requirements is that anyone who comes in has been sober for 24 hours. They don’t do any types of tests or anything like that, but their floor staff is trained to recognize if someone is “not quite there.” “We say, ‘You know what, we have a list of 12 step meetings; let’s see if we can get you in over there. And when you have 24 hours, please come back over here, please join us for lunch, please join us for dinner.’”
“The first time they come, they are a guest,” explains David. “They can see what we’re all about, see if it’s the right fit for them. After the second time, we ask that they become a Member. What this means is that they live by our simple guidelines of conduct, that they volunteer to give back however they can, and that they go to their recovery circle, which is a small group where someone receives support, builds community, and is held accountable to be their best self. We share our struggles and joys–not just with addictions, but with life in general. It’s not counseling; it’s not therapy: it’s peer-to-peer support, so it’s a group of individuals who are all on the journey together.”
Recovery Cafe is located in the Denny Triangle, less than a mile from Downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union, and Capitol Hill. From here, you can see the Seattle Times building and the Space Needle. Inside, there is a common room filled with chairs and tables and a large coffee bar in the center, where a man is cleaning up after having made a fresh brew for us.
“This is the hub of our Cafe, the center of our commitment to radical hospitality, the beating heart–the coffee,” David smiles. “When the space was being designed, we wanted to be intentional about this. One of the first in-kind gifts we received at our old location was this latte maker. At first, we were like, ‘Do we really want this? What does this say about us?’ But then we started thinking, ‘Why should regular Joe Schmoe be able to go to Starbucks and yet anyone who comes in our door can’t get a latte?’ That doesn’t make any sense.
“I know I like to come in and be like, ‘I want my coffee this way.’ So if I want it that way, how many other people want to say, ‘I want mine with chocolate or caramel or vanilla?’ We find that the latte maker, among other things we do at the Cafe, empowers people, communicates that they are loved, and provides a sense of place, that this is their place that they come and give back.
“Another cool thing:Caffé Vita provides all the coffee for free every year. They donate regular coffee, they donate espresso beans. We have limited resources, so in-kind donations make up a huge part of what we do. In-kind donations on average probably add about $300,000-400,000 per year onto our budget which helps us do more with the money we’re able to bring in. It’s a real blessing for us.”
“Caffé Vita also provides all the barista training,” adds Jeff. “I’ve been here for five years. I’ve been here with people walking in the door for the first time. They’re just getting their bearings. They just pull out a chair or whatever. But eventually they start making people lattes. To go from the street, to coming through our door, to getting the confidence to take the training, to, ‘Here, I made this for you’–that social leap is huge! To go from nothing to customer service.”
The irony of the countertop for the coffee bar: it’s made from recycled beer bottles.
“One of our biggest issues is that right now we’re only open from about 12pm to 7pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Our dream is to be open from the second the shelters close, so that individuals don’t have to spend the morning either walking around the streets, asking when is the library open or what not. And ideally we’d love to be open 7 days a week, but funding is an issue,” says David.
“There’s an individual–we’ll call him ‘Brian’–who’s a classic example: he was living in a shelter and started coming here, getting involved as a Member of the Cafe. One day he asks, ‘Why aren’t you guys open more?’
“And I say, you know, ‘We only have so much funding.’
“He asks, ‘Well, what more can I do to help out?’
“So he starts volunteering, and eventually he says, ‘You know what, I really wanna help out in the kitchen. I want to get involved in food preparation.’
“Our staff says, ‘Great, we can always use someone to help out in the kitchen. If you can show up around 9:30, we’ll get you into the kitchen, you can start making soups, chopping vegetables–you can help make the lunch happen every day that we’re open.’
“He started coming in each day; he would drink his coffee, go back into the kitchen, and start working. And just a couple weeks ago, he said, ‘Alright, I think I’m ready for some permanent housing.’ So we were able to get him an interview with Plymouth Housing and he now has a place of his own. ‘So now I’m starting to save some money; I’m gonna start buying this piece of furniture and this piece of furniture, and I’m thinking about getting a job.’
“This place has allowed him to reclaim his life after living in shelters for, he said, close to 10 years in Seattle. Just that stability we’ve been able to provide has been a real blessing for him.”
For homeless and very low-income men and women, relapse typically results in loss of housing, employment, health care, and other supportive services. This often leads to use of expensive services such as emergency rooms, or being incarcerated. For people at this end of the addiction spectrum, Recovery Cafe is an invaluable resource.
“One of the populations we serve are young people. We’ve really tried to build this program up for young adults (18-30), and we’ve found that their circumstances, their set of challenges are often different than individuals who are older, who are going through addiction or mental health challenges. One of the things our staff has tried to do in the last year is design programming for young adults and really allow them to take ownership. So, instead of the staff saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” We ask the young adults, and they say, “Actually, we think it would be cool to do this.” And we really try to empower them to do that and restore their vision for how they want to spend the rest of their lives. Not only do they have their own recovery circle, but they also have started their own 12 Step meeting called “Generation Rx” because of the pronounced abuse of prescription painkillers.
There are two meeting rooms, where the majority of the recovery circles happen. Recovery circles are tight-knit groups that provide accountability and support for each other, where stories and survival tips are shared. At Recovery Cafe, there are 36 circles meeting once a week.
“Really, the recovery circles are the heart of who we are and what we do,” says David. “All of our facilitators are trained, but none of them are trying to be psychotherapists or anything like that: they’re here to hold the group together and to allow each person to share with and support each other.”
“This is our art room,” says Jeff. “A lot of fun things happen in here. From finger painting to crayons to stained glass. So it’s one of my favorite rooms. As you probably know, as many as one fourth of all people suffer from some type of mental illness. Art is a great way to help them deal with that. Photography was mine–it’s what got me through high school. Just the power of painting and coming together and being creative with other people really helps the process.
“We had two ladies who met last year and sat next to each other in art class for a couple weeks. One said to the other, ‘You know, I don’t think I can come in anymore,’ because she was hearing voices on the bus. She said it made people next to her uncomfortable, it made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t think she could get here. The woman sitting next to her said, “That happens to me sometimes. What I do is I pull out my phone and I start talking to the voices.” Nobody knows that she’s talking to the voices! Had that class not been there, had they not met here–things would have been different. That peer-to-peer sharing of that simple solution, that little connection, that little spark that keeps her coming back was just amazing.”
“This is our meditation room. Recovery Cafe is not one denomination or another, but research has shown that quiet space for meditation can be really important on the recovery journey. One of the first things we do every day is everyone in the Cafe, including staff, comes out to the main area and shares in five minutes of silence. Now that five minutes can be used however the individual wants to use it, but we ask that they do it in quiet, so that people who do want to meditate can take that five minutes to begin their day. And from there we go to announcements and lunch."
One volunteer created a series of inspirational words made from recycled materials and duct tape.
“This is one of our multi-purpose rooms, but we call it our ‘yoga room’ because we do yoga in this room. We have a wonderful volunteer who not only leads individuals through yoga, but also helps individuals who want to become yoga instructors go through that certification program. Usually the way yoga teacher certification works is you do intense weekends or go away somewhere for like a week, you log 200 hours, and you’re certified. For us yoga and meditation are significant in recovery from addiction, PTSD, and other mental health challenges. We have a customized curriculum, so you can come three or four days a week, for an hour or two hours at a time, and you just go through it at your own pace. We have individuals who can take two to three years to get certified, but they get certified!“
A Member’s story:
“I was originally from back east. I’ve had a lot of experience with drugs and alcohol. I had always wanted to come out to this area, and I’m on disability so I can pretty much go wherever I want. I had been living around Boston. Hunter Thompson shot himself in the head so I began to look at it as a good time to make some changes, so I came out here. Very soon after, a friend of mine and I looked around for resources, but I don’t think I ever saw the Cafe at that point. But I found out about it pretty quickly afterwards. It took me a few times before I actually got there when they were open. Being I was homeless at the time–I was living in shelters, and so on–I was able to take advantage of the resources the Cafe offered. I’ve been coming to the Cafe for about seven years.
“Some of the time, I was still using off and on, so I would come and go to the circle, go away for a week or two, then come back. In October last year, I went to treatment again and I got right back into another sober home. I don’t really get into the 12 Step thing; AA doesn’t really help me–but being involved and volunteering works for me. I came back here more to give back than to use as a resource. When I was homeless before, I would help out, but I was using it more as a resource. I still get free espresso and coffee if I want, and, you know, there are some definite perks, but I feel better that I’m able to give back.
“It’s a unique facility–I’ve lived pretty much all over the country and I’ve never seen anything like this before. They don’t really ask much: just come into this one group a week, treat it as a community; help out, you know, because the Cafe can’t really run without people volunteering. It’s a great place, really. Being on disability, rather than just lie around the house or wander around the city, the Cafe gives me a focal point. When I was using it as a resource, it gives you a respite from the day. If none of you have ever been homeless, you tend to do a lot of wandering around public spaces: so you get people that just hang all day at the library–it’s relatively depressing; there are some day centers in town where you can hang out, but if you’re trying to make changes in your life, you aren’t going to get a lot of help that way. Here, people are in the process of making changes and they don’t really want anything out of you, they just want to see some personal growth and a little bit of help. Anyway, I keep coming back. It works for me. And there are quite a few people here that feel the same way.”