It’s Saturday morning, and two dozen guests are sitting down to breakfast at Woodlawn’s Living Room Cafe. A bowl of fresh fruit salad is served as a starter, followed by heaping platters of pancakes, sausage, and scrambled eggs with cheese and vegetables. At various tables in the large storefront dining room–brightened by a colorful tile mosaic covering one of the walls–guests chat cheerfully with one another. But after breakfast is finished something strange happens: the diners volunteer to help clear and wash dishes.

The Living Room Cafe, at 6422 S. Cottage Grove, is an unusual operation. Not only do the patrons chip in to clean up, but they’re all members of the cafe’s social-services program, designed to help people who are homeless or close to it stabilize their lives, find permanent housing, and develop job skills. The Living Room was founded in 1995 by Jennifer Kihm, a University of Chicago social-services grad student who patterned her establishment after Uptown’s Inspiration Cafe.

“Eat well. Feel good. Dream big.” That philosophy, articulated in literature and postings around the storefront, shows most in the regular meals provided here: dinner Mondays and Wednesdays, lunch every other Thursday, and, as of August, breakfast daily. Executive director Laura Singer says addressing people’s basic nutritional needs is the cornerstone of the program. “It’s not just a soup line, but creates a community setting where people can form relationships, where people who are living on the street or facing the challenges of struggling to survive in an underserved community can relax and feel safe.”

Once they’re getting regular meals, guests can begin to focus on other problems, working one-on-one with the cafe’s case manager, Tiffany Newsome. Newsome helps them get counseling, tutoring, computer and Internet training, and access to phones and fax machines, among other things. And with funding from the Chicago Department of Human Services, the cafe recently began to use its own operations as career training. “This year we’ll have a total of four positions open for people who are homeless to work in our kitchen as cafe assistants,” says Singer. “We send the candidates to class to get their Chicago and Illinois food sanitation licenses.” Then they work in what she calls a “transitional job” at the Living Room Cafe for six months. For an hourly rate slightly higher than minimum wage, they learn to prepare and serve meals, coordinate the volunteers who come to help cook and wait tables, and clean and maintain the premises according to codes. Newsome coaches them and helps them develop a plan for finding a job at the end of the six months. The Living Room graduated its first assistant in July; she’s currently looking for a job.

While larger nonprofits and corporate organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Kraft, and the U. of C. have regularly provided food, grants, and volunteers to support the Living Room’s operations, local small businesses have also been important to the organization’s ongoing success. Medici on 57th, for example, has donated a meal every week for the past seven years. “We try to support organizations in our neighborhood,” says Medici manager Kirsten Schley. “We send over a dinner every Wednesday night and rotate the menu–sometimes lasagna, other weeks a dozen pizzas.”

The cafe also draws on its own alumni as a resource. Ernest Jeffries spent eight months in the program and worked for several catering companies prior to being hired in July as the assistant cafe manager. He works with trainees and volunteers as they cook and serve meals. (To volunteer or for more information about the program, call 773-643-6018.) He also chairs the weekly AA meetings held after Saturday’s breakfasts.

Jeffries’s immediate supervisor is Vernon Lyle, who has been with the program since October 2001. Lyle, who grew up in Woodlawn and says he likes being back in his old neighborhood, plans each week’s dining schedules, purchases food and materials, and manages four to eight servers per shift as well as food-prep staff. As he leads the parade of servers, it’s clear he believes a big part of his job is to make sure guests really feel like guests.

With the last forkful of eggs eaten and the last sausage patty long gone, Lyle makes some general announcements, then directs guests and volunteers in a cleanup. Dishes are washed, tables are wiped, and the floor is swept. Volunteers head home while guests drift off, some to consult with Newsome, others to attend the AA meeting. Eventually they head out to Woodlawn’s streets, knowing, at least, that there’s another hot meal in their future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kevin Weinstein.