In Brighton there’s a cafe that saves lives

Brighton from above. Image: Getty.

There is nothing hip about the Cascade Coffee Shop in Brighton. The furnishings are well worn rather than retro, the inspirational quotations fixed to the wall are unironic, and the menu wouldn’t startle a visitor teleported into the premises from an age that never knew avocado on toast.

But the customers don’t hang out to look cool: they come in to save their lives. The cafe is a not-for-profit community centre run by, and for, people with experience of recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

According to the café managers’ report for its annual general meeting at the end of last year, on average 92 people a month come into the cafe because they have hit rock bottom. As the report states, sometimes all they need is a sympathetic ear; other times they are looking for long term engagement with a recovery coach. They are given help to find rehab, and supported while they wait for that to become available.

Over coffee last week, the founder of the café, Pete Davies, told me it is a prime example of an asset based community development. To explain what that is, he paraphrases John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your community can do for you – ask what you can do for your community.”

The café’s concept was pioneered by US academics John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann in the early nineties. The approach draws on the skills and lived experiences of people in the community to make positive changes.

One criticism is that communities may not always have the breadth of skills needed. Davies told me that in Brighton there is a deep and wide pool of volunteers able to deliver valuable creative projects such as writing workshops, the Cascade Chorus Recovery Choir and the monthly open mic night. On the other hand, he points out, it took six weeks to find someone to fix a window smashed by vandals.

It is arguable, even, that a project like the café helps to plug a gap in public health provision created by cuts in government spending. According to the King’s Fund health charity, spending on public health is set to fall by 5.2 per cent, from £2.6bn in 2013-14 to £2.5bn in 2017-18. The fund says that this follows a £200m in-year cut to public health spending in 2015-16 – and points to further cuts, averaging 3.9 per cent each year between 2016-17 and 2020-21.

There are 35 volunteers working in the Cascade Café, in recovery coaching, putting together creative projects and running mutual aid groups. Many of the volunteers are also involved with other organisations in the city such as the Brighton Housing Trust and the Pavilions addiction treatment services. The coffee shop covers volunteer expenses which come to £1,200 per month. 

The café and its staff.

But Davies is under no illusion that he must rely on local good will to keep the café going. “In these times of austerity, mental health services, substance abuse services are the poor relation. They’re not sexy. We need to hustle to get what we need.”

Those hustling skills were honed in the early days of the project. As part of his initiative in organising the Brighton Recovery Walk, Davies visited Birmingham, Manchester and London and saw what communities were able to achieve under their own steam.

“Brighton had a reputation as a groovy happening city, but recovering addicts had to rely on statutory services,” he says. “People with addictions are not always comfortable doing that.”

He found a landlord who was able to offer derelict building for redevelopment. “We needed a building in the right area which is where most of the active users hang out. We put the word out to people in recovery. We went around builders merchants and explained what we wanted to do, and the response was fantastic. People with relatives in recovery or who friends who had died gave us materials at cost.”

Davies is frank about his own past substance abuse (“I thought I was Ernest Hemingway but I couldn’t read my own writing”), and believes it is the fact that people can share experiences with peers in an informal setting that is crucial to it success.

Nicky Edland works behind the counter at the café and says the support she has received is helping her put her life back on track.

She says, “I was married for 20 odd years and after I got divorced I didn’t know how to do life. I would go home from work, shut the door, and the drinking spiralled out of control.

“I need to start getting back into work. A big part of my story is isolation and the café allows me to connect with people.”

Working alongside Nicky, Ryan Golden also values the sense of community.

 “I find it really good that it’s not formal,” he says. I’ve been involved with substance abuse services since I was 14. I had some bad experiences with key workers with dodgy attitudes.

“This is run by real people who get it. They have been there themselves.”


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.