There are thousands of people in Pima County diagnosed with serious mental illness — and tens of thousands more in the shadows. So training 18 people at a time seems almost pointless. But the trainees at Cafe 54 put a face on mental illness for their community in an important way. The point is that people with these diseases — schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, clinical depression — can get better. They can be a part of the community.

Even Cafe 54's tiny numbers are in jeopardy. This fall, Bernstein changed the sign on the tip jar on the front counter at Cafe 54. Instead of taking money to support the Clubhouse's arts program, she's raising money to support the trainees' employment. The restaurant is successful but far from self-sufficient, and the government funds that help support each trainee are dwindling.

Those funds are vital. Traineees are paid only minimum wage, but although the cafe does a brisk lunchtime business most days, it's not nearly enough to pay the bills.

Gustavo Mendibles was working at Eegee's (a fast-food restaurant chain in Tucson), but it didn't give him enough hours. He started off baking at Cafe 54, then did prep work, dishwashing, worked as a line cook. Born and raised in Tucson, he's never left Arizona. He finds it peaceful and friendly here. 
Mendibles' goal is to be a chef at Olive Garden.
Jamie Peachey
Gustavo Mendibles was working at Eegee's (a fast-food restaurant chain in Tucson), but it didn't give him enough hours. He started off baking at Cafe 54, then did prep work, dishwashing, worked as a line cook. Born and raised in Tucson, he's never left Arizona. He finds it peaceful and friendly here. Mendibles' goal is to be a chef at Olive Garden.
Cindy Hardy
Jamie Peachey
Cindy Hardy

Details

Shadow Dwellers: A Series

What's the one image you took away from the Tucson shootings? We thought so. That mugshot of Jared Loughner is haunting. And for the world, it has become the face of mental illness in Arizona. Here, we know that's not true. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the story of what it's like to be mentally ill in this place cannot be told in a single photograph.

Tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill people live in Arizona. Some of them look just like you.

Other stories in the series:

Phoenix's Most At-Risk Homeless Find Their Way, Thanks to a Team of "Navigators", by Paul Rubin

Meet Raven, a Homeless Man with More Community Than Many of Us Have, by Paul Rubin

Why Did the Arizona Department of Corrections Put a Mentally Ill Man in Cell with a Convicted Killer?, by Paul Rubin

Mental Illness Hasn't Stopped Chris Shelton from Becoming a World-Class Boxing Historian, by Paul Rubin

Jan Brewer's Response to Jared Loughner: Slash More Than 35 Million in Services from an Already Beleaguered Mental Health System, by Paul Rubin and Amy Silverman

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Staffing is expensive. For the 2010-11 fiscal year, restaurant sales accounted for about $160,000 of funding; vocational rehabilitation programs and other government funding accounted for the remaining $470,000.

Not long ago, Bernstein came up with a plan to supplement revenue by offering dinnertime meal deliveries. But another byproduct of the business is high turnover among staff. She lost five key employees (including Cafe 54's chef) in about six weeks' time. Those spots have been filled, but the dinner concept is on hold.

Don't be mistaken. This is still a feel-good story. Hang out at Cafe 54 for a day, and it feels pretty darn Utopian.

And that's probably its greatest challenge.

No trainee is supposed to work at Cafe 54 longer than about six months before leaving the nest for a job in the community. Yet some of those interviewed for this story have been there far longer.

Like Leisha Coca. She's worked at Cafe 54 for three years. "I"ve worked here the longest, and know everything," she says with pride.

Her first three months, all she did was wash dishes. Finally, someone asked her whether she could do more. Since then, she's bused tables, baked, done bread service, and worked as a prep cook. Once a week, she serves food.

Before she came to Tucson, Coca worked for Goodwill in Las Vegas. She came here to get sober and to be with her family. She's got three great-grandnieces, and she lives in her mother's guest house.

Coca loves the people at Cafe 54. The other day she started a new medication, and she hasn't been feeling right. Even before she could mention it, someone asked if she was okay and told her to warn them if she was dizzy.

"Everybody's on the ball and good," she says. She's not ready to leave, so Cafe 54's staff has made an exception. It's not the only one. The program employees a job-development specialist, but it's been hard to find outside work for trainees once they are ready. When they do find jobs, they often don't last. And many don't want to leave Cafe 54 in the first place. Hard to blame them.

Bernstein's giant, gray eyes crinkle with laughter. "We have to be meaner," she says ruefully.

And then she gets serious. She understands why trainees don't want to leave: "The world out there is a scary place."


A year ago next month, a young man named Jared Loughner took aim at a crowd at a Safeway, killed a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and killed or wounded 17 others, including his target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Instantly, Loughner's became the face of mental illness in Tucson — even though, technically speaking, that Safeway was outside the city's limits and Loughner himself lived in another town. A year later, there's still debate over just what sort of signs of mental illness he'd shown before the shooting.

No matter. That infamous mugshot — beamed around the world — became the symbol of a crazy man with a gun in a lawless, heartless state. The tragedy stirred up feelings a lot of people in Arizona (indeed, America) have about isolation — a lack of community, not knowing your neighbors, living without adequate government support and oversight.

In so many ways, Jared Loughner does not symbolize Tucson at all. The city struggles with cuts in government funding but has a long, rich history of reaching out to the seriously mentally ill — by voting in 2006 to fund a state-of-the-art mental-health crisis-response center that opened its doors a few months ago; by supporting its nonprofit regional behavioral-health authority (in contrast, Maricopa County's is run by a for-profit); and by filling Cafe 54 most days at lunch time.

After the January 8 shooting, Tucson didn't just hold a couple of meetings. Foundations have been created, books written. In April, a community forum called "A Delicate Balance: Creating a Better Post-January 8 System to Protect the Public and Help Persons with Serious Mental Illness" included national experts like Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Local experts spoke, too, including Clarke Romans.

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18 comments
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MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

How come they dont have my face on there? im the poster boy for mental illness.

Shell01
Shell01

Shawn, I want to tell you after reading about you my heart was heavy. My Brother had a difficult time finding his way, he didn't make it to 30. I so want to hug you and tell you that you have a place here. I spent almost 40 years finding my way and I'm still finding it. Please know that you can do what your heart feels most fond of doing - you can be who you are. You can be who you want to be. I want you to feel loved by people like me from a distance, and are cheering you on, and holding your hand and enjoying your triumphs! Michelle

JD B
JD B

I am dying to find out exactly how this dumb story makes Jared Loughner less of the president of the lunatic fringe society. He is a whack job. With or without this silly restaurant.

Val Revering
Val Revering

What a wonderful article. I have friends that work in the mental health field and they're concerned about the cuts to AHCCS because many of their patients that used to spend $4/week on their meds are now spending $100/week and they simply can't afford them. It's nice to see an organization being proactive instead of reactive.

Shooter McGaven
Shooter McGaven

Amy what a beautiful article, thank you so much. I only wish that the whole community would support this place, and maybe skip Applebees, and other chains that do NOT need our money. What a cool concept, and great way to help people. This truly teaches people to fish, as opposed to giving them a fish. All the best to the owners and supporters of this business. You guys are rock stars and doing amazing stuff.

FormerDemocrat
FormerDemocrat

Loughner is a strong signal that liberalism is sick and dying. I would like to see all liberals receive a free head examination in an effort to prevent any more mass killings. I would recommend a quarantine of liberals, perhaps at our facilities in Cuba, but I realize the cost outweighs any benefit of saving them.

Gretchen Good
Gretchen Good

Mike, do you have an email? I;d like to talk to you and I'm coming out to Tucson to takea look at Cafe 54.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

There is plenty more wackadoo wack jobs just like Jared Laughner walking around 4th ave near the hippie food co-op in Tucson and downtown Tucson near the hotel congress. they are mostly goth looking and homeless. they been around here since the early 1970s. then they get old and die off and more younger ones take over. its a never ending cycle and nobody dors nothing to help them. they are the invisible mentally ill homeless and nobody cares to help them. its been like this in Tucson for over 40 years its nothing new if you ever lived here.

Shell01
Shell01

You sir, are an asshole

TKO
TKO

"Silly restaurant"? A place that employees the unemployable, saves lives, creates jobs, offers a service, and pays taxes. Not silly. You are!

Marcy
Marcy

So people at Applebees should lose their jobs so people at Cafe 54 can have a job?

How noble.

While I have nothing against Cafe 54 and wish them well with their business, I'm not going to eat there simply because they discriminate against non-mentally ill people while Applebees doesn't discriminate against people who aren't mentally ill.

I'd eat there because I liked the food, atmosphere and prices, not because the person who cooks my food is one step away from the loony bin.

Mustafa
Mustafa

Hi, I too hate liberals. Is it now legal to beat them within an inch of their lives? I just don't understand...

gusto
gusto

Why do I get the feeling that you didn't even read this article?

Bernankeye
Bernankeye

No, of course not. I would never read anything with liberal (aka mental illnes) or loughner in the title. That would be foolish. Don't be a dolt.

 
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