Hard Knocks Café: The Living Room Cafe serves meals and more to low-income residents in Woodlawn

Living Room Cafe in Woodlawn; Harry Backlund

Living Room Cafe in Woodlawn; Harry Backlund

On a Saturday morning in May, the line for a table at the Living Room Café goes out the door. Every seat around each hardwood table is filled and the atmosphere is noisy with conversation. Servers take orders and drop off stacks of pancakes, strips of bacon, and plates piled with eggs, hash browns, and steamed vegetables. On the surface, the scene looks like any other neighborhood breakfast place. But the community that regulars find at this café goes much deeper than that of a typical restaurant. Since its founding in 1995 out of a storefront space at 64th Street and Cottage Grove, the Living Room Café has been providing hot meals and social services to individuals and families that are homeless or at risk of being homeless because of unemployment. Members accepted into the program come for dinner several times a week and for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, and are assigned a case manager to help them take steps towards steady employment and secure housing.

The café is much more than a description of the service it offers. At several of the café’s meals, I asked members about the café and its role in their lives up to now, trying to answer the question: what is it about the Living Room Café that makes the benefit to the people it serves greater than the sum of the services it provides them?

At a “living sober” club meeting later that same Saturday, I meet Kevin, a soft-spoken older man who speaks like an uncle to many of the other guests. When I ask him what makes the café different from other programs, he thinks for a moment. “Something that most people don’t seem to understand about homelessness is that it’s not just about not having money–it’s a whole pattern of life. When you’re homeless, your idea about time depends on where you can eat when, what services you can get where, who’s going to help you. The atmosphere of this place helps people come back to a pattern of life that society deems acceptable.” Kevin began coming to the café two years ago when he lost his job and nearly became homeless. For much of his life he has had steady stints of employment in the insurance business, and has worked temp jobs in between these positions, at one point reading student applications for the University of Chicago. In easier times, he was making a good salary, and was able to save and travel. He tells me about Madrid, London, the Sistine Chapel. “In America, we organize life around employment. It was such an experience traveling to see places where they really put life at the center.” Besides the meals at the café, Kevin uses the job services and computers to help him in his search for employment. “This is a supportive community, and it’s relatively diverse in this neighborhood.”

The café is part of Inspiration Corporation, a network of social service organizations whose members and volunteers are located all over the city. Most of the café’s members are black and almost all of them live in the neighborhood, but they come to the café with a wide range of experiences. “Listen,” Kevin says. “It doesn’t matter what your salary is. If your situation’s not stable, you lose your job unexpectedly…you’ll be on the street in weeks.”

At dinner later that week, I meet Denise and Evelyn, who are sitting across from each other over bowls of chili and plates of baked chicken. Denise moved to the Woodlawn neighborhood several years ago when she lost her apartment in the Ida B. Wells housing project. I ask what kind of help she’s gotten here, and she taps the glasses on her face. The café has also helped her situation; she now works as a personal care assistant and is soon moving into an apartment. “I come for the meals, really,” she says. Evelyn was placed in a state nursing home several years ago after a heart attack. She decided to leave, and an affiliated organization referred Evelyn to the Living Room Café as a way to support independent living. “I come here for the socializing,” she says, before telling a new volunteer where to find the ketchup. “A lot of people here might be in a situation where it’s hard to have a regular social life.” Earlier that day she had traveled to Springfield to lobby Governor Quinn to continue funding the social service programs that enable her to live independently despite a disability.

After dinner, Denise tells me to ask Toni my questions. A brain aneurysm in 1998 left Toni with such serious memory problems that she had to write her routes out in order to walk without getting lost. She recovered through rehab, but lost her job working in a bank because she couldn’t work the counting machines anymore. She struggled to support her five children, especially with the deaths of her parents shortly after her aneurysm. The café has helped her stay on her feet with meals and housing, but that isn’t what she refers to when asked about what sets the café apart. “I come here for the bonding,” she says. “For the people.” I ask her if she tells her story to the other members of the program. “No,” she says firmly. “I ask about the day, or we talk about what we saw or read in the newspaper.” She doesn’t hesitate when I ask her why that part is so important. “Because the people need to feel your spirit. If your spirit is not right, the people here won’t have nothing to do with you.” When I ask her what the spirit of this place is, she replies, “This place is all about helping the person who wants to be helped. They will help you get your life situation together. You can’t do anything for the spirit that doesn’t want to be helped.”

Caesarei Marsh talks about a similar change of spirit. The café’s case manager is a former client of Inspiration Corporation. Seven years ago, Marsh couldn’t read or write and was living in a pattern of active heroin addiction. A case manager affiliated with the café helped him break out of his addiction and got him tutoring help. He passed the GED and earned a certificate in psychiatric rehabilitation, and now works on the other side of the referral desk. “It allows me to help the program that helped me, to give back in a positive way to the community I used to tear up.” Marsh is quick to acknowledge the difficulties of walking the line between the world of addiction he left and the community he has helped lead since his recovery. “I’ve given bus cards to people, and then I’ll step outside and they’ll be trying to sell the same bus cards back to me.” Recently, the café adopted a harm-reduction policy, meaning it has relaxed its rules about substance use and now works with men and women dealing with drug addiction so long as they aren’t intoxicated while in the café. “We are trying to be more tolerant and more supportive at the same time,” says Kevin. During his time there, the organization has undergone significant transitions and developed a huge network of partner organizations with which they exchange referrals and pool resources. “We are constantly evaluating how we do things. We find that the behavior changes when the approach to the behavior changes.”

Inspiration Corporation estimates that 40,000 people in Chicago find themselves without secure housing at some point each year. That number isn’t shrinking. In the wake of the recession, Inspiration Corporation has reported a 20 percent increase in requests for referrals, services, and financial assistance. The energy that begins in the café and affects the lives of its members never really seems to leave. Members that have graduated from the program to steady jobs and reliable housing often return for meals, so that dinner or breakfast at the café is shared by people on all sides of the struggle with homelessness.

In the coming year, the Living Room Café will serve thousands of meals and make referrals for basic needs to hundreds of individuals. But food is not the same as a meal, and services are not the same as compassionate company; the unique strength of the café’s program is not so much in connecting people to food, shelter, and healthcare, but in connecting them to each other.