The 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.
Super 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.