In a little-used wing of a small-congregation Methodist church in South Tacoma, a handful of activists with a six-figure state grant hope to create an outpost to help the troubled and homeless, particularly veterans, rebuild their lives on stable foundations.
Their plan is to give Tacoma its first Recovery Cafe, based on a 12-year-old nonprofit in Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighborhood with more than 300 members that has inspired similar efforts elsewhere.
Based on the Seattle model, Recovery Cafes have opened in San Jose, California; Everett; and Vancouver, Washington. A group in Spokane hopes to open its own version in April.
The core focus is the same at each: to give people coming out of drug rehabilitation programs or other life-changing junctures a safe place to go during the day with guidance to resources such as employment counseling, housing programs and other help.
“At 28 days, when you come out, we’ll have a support system,” said Anne Artman, program director for the Tacoma group.
Monday morning, Artman and her group took a tour of their prospective new home in The Bridge church at South 56th Street and Puget Sound Avenue.
They encountered rooms filled with old furniture and other donated goods, walls and plumbing in need of repair and loose carpet squares piled along the sides of tile floors. Winter’s chill could be felt in many of the rooms, as could optimism that bordered on effusive.
Rick Morris, who worked in construction for three decades and coordinates volunteers with the group, spoke of which rooms needed first priority in a one-at-a-time rebuilding.
Ronny Brown, who ran a cafe in The News Tribune’s building and handles the group’s community outreach, sized up the cluttered kitchen. On one counter, a can of Parmesan cheese was several years past expiration.
“This has potential,” Brown said as he walked the room. He pointed toward the dishwasher. “Anytime you can wash a lot of dishes real quick, you can do a lot of cooking. You need to put in a vent hood, though. There’s certain foods you can’t cook without one.”
How the group came to the point of assessing the church building’s fixer-upper potential while the Rev. Abigail Vizcarra Perez, 35, pointed out its unused capacities is a tale of South Tacoma serendipity.
Less than two months before the tour, Artman entered the church for the first time on a November day unannounced, through a door someone left cracked. She began looking for people.
She had the plan of starting a Recovery Cafe but needed a venue. The church building was in the right spot: a stretch of South Tacoma near hard-bitten neighborhoods, on a bus line and easy to access from key social services.
Vizcarra Perez and a parishioners’ committee were at that very moment discussing how best to dispose of the church building.
The sanctuary, built in the 1920s, and the annex added in the 1960s could serve a congregation of about 400, Vizcarra Perez said. Today, the regular Sunday attendance at the church is about 30, owing in large part to its uneven history.
Always Methodist property, it had sat unused for several years before two declining Methodist congregations, St. Paul’s and Sixth Avenue Methodist, merged and moved there in 2011. Attendance has halved from the 60 reported in a 2011 News Tribune story. The monthly $2,000 utility bills have not.
Church members discussed exploring whether a foundation might buy the building and lease the sanctuary back to them. They discussed selling it outright. An earlier effort to host a preschool fell apart when the building couldn’t be brought up to code.
“We really don’t know what we were going to do,” Vizcarra Perez said.
A conversation led to hugs between Artman and the reverend, and then a verbal agreement emerged from further discussions.
As of this week, much remains to be finalized. Vizcarra Perez said she had no idea how much rent the Recovery Cafe would be charged. Separately, Artman said the group expects to pay about $1,200 a month, plus performing cleaning and painting work to improve the building’s neglected rooms.
“Whatever they need,” Artman said.
The group’s progress can still be measured by tentative steps. The state Department of Social and Health Services just finalized a $100,000 contract with the Multicultural Child and Family Hope Center for the Tacoma Recovery Cafe, the same amount the Hoff Foundation received for vouchers for activities at the cafe there.
Artman and others spoke of plans to secure $1.5 million in funding for three years of operations, but declined to discuss specifics.
Their plans are for a February opening, though previous discussions had included getting the doors open this month. Its goal is to serve about 25 people at a time, specializing in veterans with ties to the area’s military bases who are overcoming addiction and other issues.
David Coffey, executive director of the Seattle Recovery Cafe, said the Tacoma group had consulted with them but has not been in regular coordination.
The older and larger Seattle program has a stated goal of inspiring parallel efforts in other cities, including a “sharing our model” section on its website. It plans to start a formal “partnership” program through which other groups could pay for its expertise in making a Recovery Cafe sustainable.
Raising money in an economic downturn, such as the Seattle location endured in the Great Recession of 2008-09, was particularly challenging, said Coffey, 42. The Seattle cafe also receives state funding, estimated by a DSHS spokeswoman as $180,000 in 2015.
“It’s a process,” Coffey said in a telephone interview. “It requires significant commitment. It’s a lot of work. What inspires me is the passion that people bring to the work.”
Among the many notices on the church’s cluttered bulletin board, one sign stated, “This church can help end homelessness” but gave no formal direction as to how.
A few yards away, Sunday school teacher Gail Woodard, 69, said after Monday’s tour that she had not heard of any hesitation from fellow congregants about hosting the nascent Recovery Cafe.
“We’re always open to new ways of serving this community,” Woodard said. “If this will help people, it’s wonderful.”