Meat and potatoes, with dignity on the side. At Cafe 458, the homeless have it their way

`IT'S not as good as my mother's, but it's pretty darn good,'' says Robert Ford as he takes another bite of fried chicken and scoops up a spoonful of collard greens. Looking up with a smile, he says to his waiter, ``And I think I'm almost ready for dessert.'' Mr. Ford likes the home-cooked food and the friendly atmosphere at the small eatery. But even more - he likes the price. At Atlanta's Cafe 458, probably the first restaurant for homeless in the country, all of the meals are free.

But the caf'e is not just another soup kitchen doling out free meals. At 458, the guests, as the staff prefers to call the patrons, sit in a sunny dining room filled with Formica tables topped with fresh flowers, and they eat off real plates. They order from a daily menu that always includes a choice of two entrees, rolls, two vegetables, two desserts, and coffee, tea, or lemonade. (Ford could choose fried chicken or spaghetti, carrots or greens, and cheesecake or peach cobbler.)

Situated in a historic area of downtown Atlanta, near the Martin Luther King Center, the brightly painted building has been serving a small number of the city's homeless since it opened last June. Five days a week the all-volunteer staff serves 45 to 50 people a hot, full-course lunch.

Like Ford, a disabled truck driver, some of the homeless have been coming to the restaurant since it opened. They feel at home and greet the staff and some of the other diners by their first names.

``We're serving more than food here,'' says the Rev. A.B. Short, one of the founders. ``We're serving friendship, hospitality, and brotherhood. Once people come together for a meal and sit across the table from one another at eye level, walls break down.''

Carol Bogrett, a single parent with two school-age daughters, says, ``Oftentimes, people who are homeless, even if it's just temporarily, are treated in a dehumanizing way, but here the staff treats everyone with courtesy and respect.''

Guests get reservations from local shelters, the nearby labor pool, and other social agencies that serve the homeless. To encourage interaction and long-term relationships with other homeless and the staff, reservations are valid for a two-week period and may be renewed.

Atlanta, like other cities across the country, has several soup kitchens and shelters that feed the homeless. But many people, especially women with children and the elderly, are frightened or intimidated in soup kitchens, since they usually serve several hundred people each day.

Bobby Harris cites a major difference between soup kitchens and Cafe 458: ``You have to push and shove when you eat in a soup kitchen. People are jumping in front of you - coming in half drunk. But here the caf'e has a nice atmosphere, and [the staff and volunteers] are helping a lot of people who really need help.''

Mr. Short, a longtime activist for the homeless, explains the philosophy behind the restaurant: ``We believe people can make some changes in their lives when they're in a supportive community. We're trying to establish a relationship with people in transition, see what they want to do next and what's the next step for them.''

Keith Suma, New York project director for the National Coalition for Homeless, a federation of advocacy groups for the homeless, says, ``Cafe 458 addresses more than the physical needs of the homeless. It's an innovative program that is trying to provide some support for homeless and bring them back into the mainstream.''

The caf'e, which is simply named for its street address, is operated by the Community of Hospitality, a nonprofit religious group that also operates a small shelter for men. The caf'e is staffed with volunteers, some of whom serve on the small board of advisers. The board also includes the director of the city's food bank and one of his division coordinators, a lawyer with the Atlanta Criminal Defense and Justice Project, and two local businessmen.

A nonprofit organization, the caf'e operates with an annual budget of $36,000, most of which comes from private donations and local contributions. Since all of the 30 to 40 workers are rotating volunteers, the biggest item on the budget is the monthly mortgage payment. The utilities bill is another major cost.

MOST of the food comes from the Atlanta Food Bank and the Atlanta Table, a division of the Food Bank that collects surplus food from local restaurants, hotels, and hospitals and delivers it to the caf'e. But Laurie Findlay, the volunteer kitchen coordinator who also plans the menus, must buy some meat and staples each week.

Short began working on a caf'e about two years ago after he talked with Robert Freeman, the chairman of the Atlanta Community Food Bank's board of directors. Mr. Freeman, a recently retired businessman who had volunteered to help work in a local soup kitchen, was disappointed by the lack of interaction between the soup kitchen staff and clients. ``While large-scale feeding programs are necessary in most cities, eating in a soup kitchen is somewhat dehumanizing,'' he says.

Freeman and Short discussed the possibility of opening a small restaurant where homeless people could have a meal with dignity rather than feeling just like a number. ``We wanted to help the homeless gain some control in their lives and give them some options,'' Short says, ``even if it's something as small as choosing what they'll eat or drink or complaining about the food.''

Several churches and individuals involved in local programs for the homeless responded to Short's and Freeman's requests for aid and donations. After almost a year's search, an abandoned building was selected as the site because, it was close to several of the city's shelters as well as medical facilities and easily accessible by MARTA, the city's transit system.

With the help of several local businesses and a state grant, Short purchased the building for $60,000. Short notes, ``Even though the building was useless, we had to pay top dollar for it because the land is so valuable. In the next few years, the whole area around the MLK Center and Auburn Avenue will be restored with federal funds.''

The building, a one-time drive-in liquor store behind the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, had been vacant for almost 20 years. The interior, filled with broken glass and debris, was completely gutted. The exterior concrete was covered with mold.

Short, along with volunteers and local contractors, immediately began cleaning up the area. A businessman donated a dump truck, and volunteers carted away more than half a dozen loads of rubble and junk.

LOCAL contractors and union members donated services and materials, replacing all of the plumbing, electricity, and heating and cooling systems. A restaurant chain designed the kitchen area and donated equipment. The renovations, which took more than eight months to complete, had to meet both the city codes and guidelines for the restoration of historic properties.

Volunteers from local churches, along with some of the homeless, hung sheet rock and painted the caf'e both inside and out. They hung pink curtains on the windows and placed flowers on each table. The city of Atlanta donated tubs of red and white geraniums to line the entrance ramp. The caf'e has now attracted national attention and become a model for several cities considering opening restaurants for the homeless.

In keeping with the mission statement of the caf'e, Short and the volunteer staff are working toward making the cozy caf'e a small community center for the homeless. Guests already have access to legal services, which are now housed in the front of the building, and a mobile medical facility that visits the caf'e twice a month. Alcoholics Anonymous meets in here once a week, and plans are under way to begin placing some of the homeless in job programs through another nonprofit group.

Short, however, wants to focus on the quality of the program. ``We're not an assembly line,'' he says. ``There are only so many people you can know and develop a meaningful relationship with.''

While he'd like to expand the variety of the services offered, he doesn't want to expand the number the caf'e serves, because of the personalized nature of the program. ``We know we're not solving the homeless problem in Atlanta - but we are helping a small number of people take another step.''

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