The hard luck café

The smell inside the Canticle Café is unmistakable.

It's an odor that clings to the homeless, one of long days spent out in the weather, of dried sweat and unwashed dirt. 

It gets them kicked out of most places, keeps people at a distance and relegates them to a handful of spots like shelters, soup kitchens and churches, where they keep company with each other in a world within ours but separate from it.

Brother Al Mascia, a Franciscan friar with St. Aloysius Catholic Church, wanted to give the homeless an opportunity to feel what it's like to be treated as a normal person, to be served instead of being told to leave.  

So a few years ago, he converted his church's warming center at Washington and State, where for years the homeless have come to escape the cold, into a traditional coffee shop for people living on the streets. 

"Folks used to come in and would just serve themselves from a pot of coffee and a box of doughnuts," says Mascia, 55. "We had folding chairs and a little TV with rabbit ears, and I figured we can do better than that."

They began offering poetry slams, a piano to play, computers with Internet access, a television with a DVD player, different blends of organic coffee, light food like oatmeal and sandwiches, and a bakery making fresh muffins and rolls. 

Same as a normal coffee shop, except here everything is free, nearly everybody is homeless, and nobody gets kicked out for how they look or smell. 

In fact, the patrons are called "guests" by the staff instead of "clients" and are now served coffee by volunteer baristas. "We call them 'guests' because what we're trying to do is stimulate the person's sense of self-esteem and dignity," Mascia says. They also offer traditional social services like counseling, visits with a nurse, utility assistance and warm clothing.

The café, named after a St. Francis song ("The Canticle of the Sun"), faces challenges a normal coffee shop doesn't deal with, to say the least. The air carries a sharp odor that stays in your nostrils even after you leave. The language is sometimes foul; other times it's incoherent. Some guests are crazy or strung out. A few nod out in their chairs after eating. 

But most of the homeless here are well-behaved and courteous, as if to live up to the dignity the café tries to foster. An orderly line forms for coffee and muffins in the morning. The audience listens politely when someone reads a poem or sings a song. And almost everyone demures when Mascia, in the brown robe of a friar, walks by and says hello in the morning. 

The café invites others from the area too, like lonely seniors who live in the high-rise, low-income apartments up and down Washington Boulevard, even downtown office workers. Mascia says he wants to mix people from different backgrounds, for the poor to interact with the more fortunate, for those who have it good to meet those who don't. 

"Once you make friends with folks who are living on the streets, as we have here, then you can't just dismiss it, objectify it, depersonalize it," he says. "Then they become real human beings, and you become concerned for their welfare." 

"Welcome to
my mind. Welcome to my madness." 

So begins the weekly Friday morning poetry slam. Its host, Grant Chapman, is reading from a binder of his laminated poems. He stands at a podium with a primitive beat box and a microphone rigged up to crude little computer speakers, reading his poetry to a fuzzed-out beat. He's 48, lives in Hart Plaza and calls himself a "soul poet."

Once he gets things rolling, audience members can come up, one by one, and say pretty much anything they want. Or sing. Or rant. There are few rules.

"Some guys will talk about their experiences on the street, sometimes they might do a freestyle rap thing, so it's pretty interesting," says Michael Thomas, the café's 44-year-old case manager. "It's always something a little bit different."

A woman meekly steps up to the microphone. "I've done things," she says, mysteriously, as a bare-bones beat plays behind her words. She's bundled in a coat and a wool hat. Her tone is confessional. "And I'm a sinner too. I'm not perfect." When she's finished she thanks God for keeping her alive and asks for a round of applause for him. The room obliges. 

The religious overtones of the place, like the sight of a friar wandering around, like the colorful mural of St. Francis on the wall, an idyllic scene into which the faces of some volunteers have been painted, influence some of the stream-of-consciousness performances. 

Cue Fred Thompson. He stands and launches into a spontaneous religious sermon at bone-rattling volume that has the guests frozen nervously in their chairs. "He does this once a week," Chapman says, smirking. It's just Thompson's form of poetry. 

Mascia never knows what talents lie hidden beneath the ragged appearance of those in the crowd. For instance, a homeless teen once came in for a doughnut. "I didn't know who he was; he didn't say a word. I thought he could be a gang member, he could be anything." Then he sat at the piano and played Pachelbel's Canon in D from memory. 

"It just blew me away. You can never assume anything when it comes to the folks that we deal with. Unfortunately, many people have assumptions that lead them to be surprised that there are these many levels of richness in character and being among the homeless."

Many of the volunteers here were once patrons. John Pokorney, who runs the bakery, lived in a fleabag motel down the street, near death and nearly homeless, spending his nights drinking away the depression that followed two bouts with brain cancer. 

"I was very down and out, and one of my friends told me about this place, and I came by to get food," the 31-year-old says. One side of his shorn head has a thick scar from his surgeries. When he speaks his face shows the intensity of someone who has twice stood on the edge of death and isn't sure he's back. He still needs treatments, fistfuls of pills, endless tests and checkups. 

But he asked to work here, quit drinking and stayed. "I found my purpose here."

There's a new,
landscaped boulevard running down the middle of Washington. The restored, historic Book Cadillac hotel gleams across the street. And groups of homeless people spill out from the café, loitering in groups by parked cars or the flowerbeds, or ambling past out-of-towners walking down the block.

It wasn't what many had in mind when restoring this part of town.

"Some of our guests are rough around the edges, and they'll approach people, panhandling with a level of aggression that we're not happy with," Mascia says.

Since the hotel reopened and the street was redone, he's heard calls to move the café somewhere, anywhere. Just not here. Wandering vagrants and timid tourists don't mix.

The café volunteers, though, defend the homeless customers. "Very few actually panhandle right here," Thomas says. "But you're in downtown Detroit; if you're near here and they have a problem with a homeless person, they're going to put it on us even if it's someone that I've never seen here before."

Mascia wants to keep the café in this spot downtown, because its customers call this area home. There's room here, he says, for those from the extremes of society to share the same part of the city, to give people the chance to learn something from others who live in a world very much unlike their own.

"Another way of looking at urban renewal is mixing people up, having a neighborhood of diversity," he says. "The benefit of that is the enrichment of lives all around. We're all enriched when we get to know people from different walks of life."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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