Romans has headed the local NAMI chapter for decades. He's a big fan of Cafe 54. He likes both the food and the concept.

"It's really a cool place, both conceptually and the way it's managed," Romans says. "It's a portal, I think, back into the real world for a lot of people who had worked and are trying to get back into it or who had never worked."

Word of Cafe 54 has made its way to Phoenix, as well. Romans says a contingent from the Phoenix NAMI chapter came down recently to check out the model, and Chick Arnold, the godfather of mental healthcare — certainly mental health law — in Arizona praises the concept.

Twelve years ago, Alison Sakariason traveled to Arizona from Boston to visit her younger sister in Yuma. A relationship led her to Tucson. The relationship went south, but she's been in Tucson ever since. She'd been looking for a job for a year and a half when she found Cafe 54. 
"I love it. It's a godsend," she says. "They have the patience of saints."
She's worked the cash register, done prep work, and baking. Her dream job is to be a prep cook. Sakariason says she loves the opportunities in Tucson. "But there should be even more."
Jamie Peachey
Twelve years ago, Alison Sakariason traveled to Arizona from Boston to visit her younger sister in Yuma. A relationship led her to Tucson. The relationship went south, but she's been in Tucson ever since. She'd been looking for a job for a year and a half when she found Cafe 54.

"I love it. It's a godsend," she says. "They have the patience of saints." She's worked the cash register, done prep work, and baking. Her dream job is to be a prep cook. Sakariason says she loves the opportunities in Tucson. "But there should be even more."

Shawn Caplan spent two years on the streets of Tucson, sleeping most nights in a tunnel under the train tracks. He woke up every couple of hours. He had nobody -- his parents were gone and even his big brother turned him away. He hung around with the wrong crowd, got involved with gangs. 
Finally, Caplan got sick of it and pulled away. He got help at shelters, got a diagnosis for his extreme anxiety and other symptoms (bipolar disorder), and three years ago, he finally got his own place. But he wasn't ready to get a job. He'd done restaurant work before, but he couldn't handle the stress. 
"I just gave up a lot," Caplan says. Now he's worked at Cafe 54 for six months. He's done dishwashing and prep work, but his favorite is the grill. He's learned how to grip a knife the right way and cut vegetables. 
"More importantly," he says, "I've learned about stress."
Caplan's pretty proud of himself. He'd like to be an analyst for the CIA someday. Or maybe go into computers.
"I thought my mom dying was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he says. "But it wasn't. It was taking care of myself."
Jamie Peachey
Shawn Caplan spent two years on the streets of Tucson, sleeping most nights in a tunnel under the train tracks. He woke up every couple of hours. He had nobody -- his parents were gone and even his big brother turned him away. He hung around with the wrong crowd, got involved with gangs.

Finally, Caplan got sick of it and pulled away. He got help at shelters, got a diagnosis for his extreme anxiety and other symptoms (bipolar disorder), and three years ago, he finally got his own place. But he wasn't ready to get a job. He'd done restaurant work before, but he couldn't handle the stress

. "I just gave up a lot," Caplan says. Now he's worked at Cafe 54 for six months. He's done dishwashing and prep work, but his favorite is the grill. He's learned how to grip a knife the right way and cut vegetables. "More importantly," he says, "I've learned about stress."

Caplan's pretty proud of himself. He'd like to be an analyst for the CIA someday. Or maybe go into computers.

"I thought my mom dying was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he says. "But it wasn't. It was taking care of myself."

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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"The notion is fabulous," Arnold says, comparing Cafe 54 to a highly successful record-and-tape business begun in Denver in a similar fashion many years ago. "My sense is that with appropriate seasoning and timing and support, Cafe 54 could be a  . . . self-sustaining business."

Instead of creating innovative programs, much of the mental-health community in Arizona has been in crisis mode for years, trying to deal with statewide budget cuts that directly affected the seriously mentally ill.

Those cuts didn't entirely eliminate services, but thousands of people lost access to name-brand medication, therapy, and case managers. Arnold says a lot of numbers have been tossed around, but most local experts agree that there are about 2,000 seriously mentally ill people in Maricopa County who have been lost since July 2010; no one knows whether they are getting help.

More numbers: In November 2010, the Arizona State University Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy and the Morrison Institute for Public Policy released a report that estimated that 35 percent of the state's adults with serious mental illness do not qualify for AHCCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicaid program). That was before the latest cuts this past July. Eddie Sissions, executive director of the Arizona Foundation for Behavioral Health, estimates that in the past two years, state funding for the seriously mentally ill, general mental health/substance abuse and children fell by $114.2 million dollars and affected 36,500 people.

Arnold's caseload is higher than ever, as families struggle to get help — often in emergency situations — for mentally ill loved ones.

In Tucson, it's a similar situation.

"Our call volume is up by about 50 percent from before July 2010," Romans says. NAMI's Tucson office has reached out to the criminal justice system, faith-based organizations, and groups such as Bernstein's Clubhouse. And, as has happened in Maricopa County, the response has been tremendous.

But it's not enough, Romans cautions. Who is going to pay for a seriously mentally ill person's $700-a-month prescription for Abilify, the only medication that works for many people and is now not covered by the government?

Just days after the Tucson tragedy, Governor Jan Brewer announced her plan to make additional cuts to services by eliminating AHCCCS services to childless adults. Her original plan was estimated to affect almost a quarter-million people. It was revised three times to bring the number down to anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 statewide, Romans says.

Brewer has dealt a cruel blow to the mental-health community, which feels abandoned by her. In the 1990s, as a state legislator, the Republican, who has a mentally ill son herself, championed mental-health issues, helping Democratic colleagues push measures through the conservative Legislature. As governor, she's dropped the issue, and the Legislature has followed her lead.

"Large numbers of individuals, including some with the most severe illnesses and among those most vulnerable, are being left out in the cold," according to a report from NAMI's national office.

"I have a person that works here," Romans says of a seriously mentally ill colleague at the Tucson NAMI office. "And he says to me frequently, 'If I lost my AHCCCS, I don't know what I'd do.' He says, 'I do know what I'd do.' He doesn't say the words, but I know what he means. He'd take his own life."


It's the beginning of her work day, but Cafe 54 trainee Alison Sakariason is already dozing off.

It looks that way, at least. The staff and trainees have gathered on a Wednesday in mid-November in a room at the front of the restaurant for their daily morning meeting.

Today, they are asked to go around the room and talk about what they like best about their jobs — obviously for the benefit of a reporter present.

All but one of the trainees is happy to comply — happy, in fact, to talk in more depth with New Times later that day about their experiences and to have their names used. (Their stories are told alongside their portraits, which accompany this article.)

As the meeting progresses, they are quiet and respectful, waiting their turns and then describing their tasks for the day (dishwashing, baking, prep line, front-of-the-house) and then their favorite part of the job (the other trainees, the atmosphere, the staff).

When it's Sakariason's turn, her eyes open just before her name's called, as though she has been watching everything from behind closed lids. A tiny woman with a kerchief on her head, she's ready with her answer, delivered in a thick Boston accent: "Definitely the people."

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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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