At Recovery Café, those recovering from homelessness, addiction, mental illness form a community

SAN JOSE – On a Thursday afternoon in November, Toni Gutierrez wiped down syrup containers and stacked up glasses at the end of her shift.

After 20 years of homelessness, Gutierrez is now the lead barista at Recovery Café, a community center on South 5th Street in San Jose serving people who are recovering from homelessness, mental illness and addiction.

She now has stable housing. She got a job at a senior program, and she received a small stipend for attending a barista training program offered by the café.

Gutierrez loves her work at the café — from preparing coffee to the cleaning she has to do. The coffee goes to volunteers, staff workers or members – people in recovery who participate and help out at the café – so working there has given her more of a chance to socialize with the people at Recovery Café.

“[Members] enjoy what we do for them,” Gutierrez said. “And I like giving to everybody.”

The first Recovery Café opened in Seattle in 2004. Since then, Recovery Cafés have appeared across the country. San Jose’s café was the second in the country; now, there is an entire network, called the Recovery Café Network, that provides a curriculum and training to people trying to create similar centers in their cities.

According to David Uhl, the director of the network, there are currently 22 Recovery Cafés, up from three when the network launched in 2016. Uhl said that the network is continuing to grow, adding between 12 and 15 new organizations every two years.

One of those recent additions is in San Francisco, which began the training program for new organizations earlier this year.

Uhl said that Recovery Cafés offer continued support to people in recovery lasting long after they exit traditional treatment providers.

“Recovery Café really sees itself as a place where an individual can come and be a part of a community to continue enjoying the support that they need and the stability that they may need to thrive,” Uhl said.

In San Jose, that has meant that members have a wide variety of classes that they can take, from yoga to classes on healing and relationships.

Lisa Willmes, the program director for the Recovery Café in San Jose, said that the café has classes on Tai Chi, mindfulness, nutrition and financial literacy.

The café also offers job training in the form of eight-week culinary and barista training classes. Because of a $200,000 grant from Santa Clara County that began last year, the 10 class participants now receive up to an $80 stipend – $10 for each class they attend – for taking part in the program.

Willmes said that the stipends are designed to make sure that members are compensated for their work and to encourage them to attend the classes. The café also connects its members to services if they need more help, Willmes said.

In addition to attending once-a-week classes, participants take individual training sessions with their instructors to learn new techniques and recipes. They also participate weekly in preparing food and coffee for the café’s members.

Recovery Café is also paying for participants to acquire a food handler’s card, which food service providers need in California. And Willmes said that the culinary program itself has expanded because of the grant, allowing for more members to participate and adding a full-time culinary teacher.

But even in the job training classes, getting members employed is only a secondary concern. Willmes said that about 30 percent of participants have received employment following the programs.

That’s because many café members come to the program having been abandoned by families at young ages and lack the confidence or the coping skills to enter the job market.

For them, gaining employment without picking up the motivational skills and coping skills they need could mean they’d wind up in a cycle of unemployment.

“We’ve seen kind of a rotation…of folks getting employed and then quickly losing their jobs because of an incident and walking out or being fired and then having long bouts of unemployment and then kind of going right back into this,” Willmes said.

So, Willmes said, the programs focus on helping participants grow. To that end, the programs provide members with a certificate of completion if they attend enough classes – helping motivate members to see the classes to the end and rewarding them for their achievements in the program.

“Members are coming to us really needing to build those basic building blocks,” Willmes said. “And so our hope and our goal is to get them up to the level where they recognize that they could potentially be ready for employment at some point. But that healing takes time.”

Willmes said that the program has seen significant growth in many of its participants. Once the participants enroll in the voluntary course, she said, many of them start participating in other services that address trauma.

“Once they start working and addressing those traumas, they’re able to heal,” Willmes said.

Participants said that they’ve also seen themselves growing through the programs. When Gutierrez first started attending Recovery Cafe four years ago on a friend’s suggestion, she said she used to “just come and leave the cafe.”

“Now, I’m getting more involved with what goes on in here,” Gutierrez said.

Gabriel McGlaughlin, who is in the barista program with Gutierrez, said that since joining the cafe a year ago, he has stayed on his medication and remained sober.

“I’ve been working diligently at my self-care, I’m in school now part-time and starting to get into shape,” McGlaughlin said. “And I’m happy.”

And Don Martin, who is a member of the culinary class, said that the class has reassured him that “recovery is not going to be as difficult as I thought it would be.”

For the participants of McGlaughlin’s, Martin’s and Gutierrez’s cohort, which ended Nov. 16, the classes helped them socialize with other cafe members and allowed them to do things they had long wanted to do.

Martin said that he got involved in cooking at the cafe by wandering back into the kitchen, curious about what people were making.

“They’re great to work with,” Martin said. “They offer a very congenial atmosphere.”

For Willmes, providing that atmosphere where members feel respected and cared for is crucial; it’s a central part, she said, of what Recovery Café does, in and out of its culinary and barista training classes.

By providing a space and a community of people in recovery, she said, a member who had been actively homeless for five years recently told staff at the café that he was ready to change.

Recovery Café connected him to a case manager and he received his first apartment.

“It really took being in a safe place and in a community where he was seen and loved for him to see his own humanity,” Willmes said. “And realize he was worthy of being housed and he was worthy of all these basic elements that we take for granted.”


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