Sunrise Cafe Serves Oatmeal Topped With Dignity

Allan Appel PhotoThe people on line at Wooster Square’s remarkable new breakfast spot, most of them homeless, are asked these questions: Your name? Your table number? And would you like banana or pineapple for your homemade smoothie?

A program of Liberty Community Services, the cafe is a unique breakfast program run every day of the work week from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.  It’s housed in the ground floor of St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church at Olive and Chapel streets.

The program began in March with six “guests,” as the diners are called. This Tuesday morning, the nearly all-volunteer crew served a record 150 guests who ordered 15 items on the menu.

The place has been a hit with Shaolin McKenzie, a regular.

The way the order is taken in a regular cafe style, and the food brought by a volunteer — on this day Paddy Gavin, a rising sophomore from Yale University — “allows you to hold onto your dignities,” McKenzie said as volunteer Michael DeMartino played John Lennon’s “Imagine” nearby on a Yamaha keyboard.

The free cafe is “not just for the homeless. Some people are without money for breakfast,” McKenzie pointed out

McKenzie’s not homeless. His reason for coming? He dug into the oatmeal, toast, cold cereal, orange, yogurt, and other items on his tray, and gave a one-word answer: “Divorce.”

A sense of unconditional welcoming filled the brightly decorated basement space of the church as volunteers took orders on regular restaurant forms and others brought out trays of food from the busy back kitchen.

Angel Font (at bottom left in photo) raised his cup of coffee for a toast.

“It’s a good place to be,” he said, “a good start of the day with a good meal.”

“Some places you’re shoved in and out. Here you eat with respect. Instead of shoving granola bars in your pocket and going out the door. I don’t have to put my guard up too much. [It’s] awesome,” McKenzie said.

Early walk-in breakfast for homeless and transient people is also served on Tuesdays at the St. Martin De Porres Catholic Church; on Wednesday at St. Lukes on Whalley Avenue; and on Friday at St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church.

Liberty Community Services Executive Director John Bradley said that instead of adding Monday and Thursday breakfasts, his group determined to take on the whole week.

“We felt we were being consistent,” he said. “It’d be easier [for the guests] to understand, and to supplement what’s already being done.

“The churches are dong a phenomenal job. We just felt there is an additional need.”

Sunrise is the only cafe-style model in town. Guests appeared to count on it for a nutritional and positive emotional start to the day.

Joseph Starite (pictured), who has been a regular since the beginning, showed his appreciation after a meal of toast, a muffin, cold cereal, and oatmeal, which he enumerated.

He said he’s been homeless for 18 months after completing a nine-year jail term. He sleeps either on the Upper Green or on a stoop or at the Grand Avenue shelter. He was not able to find any kind of transitional housing a year and a half ago until now, and prospects aren’t good, he said.

He described Cafe Sunrise as “significant” in his life. When he wakes up on the Green in the morning, “I look forward to it,” he said.

“This whole thing is not [just] about food. It’s about building community,” said Bradley.

Allan Appel PhotoSuper volunteer Ellen Gabriel, who helped spark the creation of the cafe, said that “the guests, when they get to know us, let us know their other needs.”

About 70 percent of the guests are men, 30 percent women, and about half African American and half Latino, with a smattering of Caucasians, Gabriel said.

After word spread, the daily number of guests has grown to about 100 on average, with the number rising, as on Tuesday, as the end of the month nears, Gabriel added.

Regardless of the number who show up, there is no saying “no” at Cafe Sunrise, said main chef Thelma Ragsdale. No matter how many people come through the door, they will receive breakfast right up to 9:30.

Joseph Starite said that his next stop, after breakfast, is the public library on Elm Street, where, every day, he searches for a job. Tonight he’ll be on the Green or maybe a bench, he said, but tomorrow morning there will be Cafe Sunrise.

Back in November had been some push-back when organizers discussed the program with the Wooster Square management team, some of whose members had concerns about security and littering. So far it’s gone on without a hitch, said Ragsdale.

Just to be sure, in addition to cooking and organizing the volunteers, she takes regular breaks to kibbitz on the sidewalk with arriving and departing guests. And to pick up the occasional errant napkin.

Ragsdale, Gabriel, and their majordomo of volunteers Michael “Flash” Gordon are always looking for more help. That will be especially so come mid- to late September, when the cafe plans to offer, in addition to its current menu, eggs and bacon, and variations on the great American breakfast.

To volunteer, contact Liberty Community Services or siimply show up with a smile at 7 a.m., entering on the inclined path at Chapel and Olive.

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posted by: eliantonio on August 27, 2015  3:38pm

The volunteers are rock starts, Mike is a good man, and his fellow volunteers will never get the recognition they deserve, but probalby more then they are comfortable.
Bad taste though to just take a picture of people trying to eat their breakfast in peace with dignity.  I hate when reporters and outlets pander to emotions with articles like these.

posted by: wendy1 on August 27, 2015  4:02pm

I’m glad Sunrise Cafe is alive and well, feeding more than ever.  Hot meals are even better.  I met very nice people there, staff and clients.  The few doubters in the neighborhood came around pretty quick since the cafe is an advantage not any threat.  The Saturday Food and Clothing Bank, run by another group, is also important and busy.

Meeting these neighbors under such duress has only doubled my desire for subsidized housing so I dont have to watch them freeze or cook out of doors.  This is not Calcutta! The awful shelters are inadequate.  I suggest that Yale School of Public Health, School of Architecture, School of Medicine, and School of Management work on housing these hundreds in a constructive way.  That’s a school project that makes sense—-Yale has the expertise and the money.  I believe housing managed by SOM has a better shot than with HUD, LCI, or any other potentially corrupt bunch of managers.

How can Yale ignore the homeless multitude on their doorstep????  How does it look to students, parents, the public???

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 27, 2015  7:30pm

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ”

― Martin Luther King Jr.

As Wendy! Always says, They Need Housing!!!!!

posted by: Bradley on August 28, 2015  12:27am

Wendy, I volunteer at cafe regularly and have had the chance to talk with a fair number of the guests. Like any large group of people, they have varying needs. Some primarily need housing. Others have significant mental health problems and providing housing, in and of itself, is insufficient to allow them to participate in society.

I’ve noted one irony regarding the cafe. At the public meeting before the cafe opened, some neighbors voiced a concern regarding the cafe’s potential impact on the Head Start program that operates less than a block away. But on several occasions, guests have brought their young children to the cafe.

To reiterate point made in the article, the cafe needs more volunteers! People can come by any time between 7 and 9 Monday through Friday. Another opportunity is Loaves and Fishes, the program Wendy mentioned. It provides groceries and clothes on Saturday mornings. Like the cafe, Loaves and Fishes operates from St. Paul and St. James.

posted by: wendy1 on August 28, 2015  8:04am

True, Bradley, not everyone in NH wants the responsibility of an apt., but you cant deny housing to all addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill.  That is why I offer this challenge to the city and to Yale, a school full of future docs, RN’s. social workers, and other clinicians (in training).  Medical and social support has always been in the plans.  Meanwhile United Way has trumpeted the fact that just giving someone a place can have remarkable results (see their film).

And yes, Children have been served at Sunrise.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on August 28, 2015  9:29am

What kind of country let’s churches and private charities carry the burden of providing food and shelter for citizens in need?
What kind of country spends billions on weaponry and doesn’t provide group housing for the mentally ill?
What kind of university sits on $28 billion while suffering is just outside its doors?
What kind of economic system allows a minority to hold most of the wealth?
The truth is, we are all one job away from destitution in too many cases.

posted by: Bradley on August 29, 2015  1:33pm

Wendy, as an FYI, students from the Yale Medical School routinely do screenings for diabetes and high blood pressure at Loaves and Fishes.

posted by: wendy1 on August 29, 2015  6:53pm

FYI Bradley, that’s nice but not good enough.  We’re talking over 1000 men, women, teens sleeping outdoors here in NH.

FYI 2 years ago when I was pushing for River St, I spoke to the young gal who repped for the med students who worked at the Fair Haven Clinic and the message I got was “Build us a clinic and we will come”.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  I want bigger results than a finger in the dyke that many locals rationalize as being enough.  IT IS NOT ENOUGH.  If you walk around the city and pay attention, you will notice illness, infection, rashes, swollen limbs, missing teeth, open sores, and more.  People sleeping on the ground are prone to lice and ticks.

Some day this could be you if you run out of resources.  I wrote a letter to Balzick, the medical head of YNHH, suggesting they get staff out on the streets to help (like they use to do in NYC-St. Vincent’s) and he wrote back telling me Yale was doing enough, this from the 4th largest hospital in the USA.  I beg to differ.