Restaurant News

Tucson's Cafe 54 Serves the Seriously Mentally Ill by Allowing Them to Serve

2011, as you might recall, started off with a horrific bang. A man with a gun took aim at U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a Safeway just outside of Tucson, and -- well, you know the rest. 

My colleague Paul Rubin and I did a story a few days later about both the state of the mental health of Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, and the state of mental health care in Arizona.

Subsequent stories took me to Tucson, where a dear friend introduced me to Cafe 54 -- a sweet little lunch spot a couple blocks from Hotel Congress. 

The food was good and the back story even better, my friend explained. Most of the employees are seriously mentally ill; this is their first step toward rejoining the community, becoming self-sufficient.

Over the next few months, as the Loughner story unfolded (to the small extent it did, there are still a lot of unanswered questions) I kept thinking about that restaurant. To me, that place said a lot more about what it's like to be mentally ill in Tucson -- or what it can be like, anyway -- than that Safeway parking lot where I watched a maintenance man haul away flowers and get well cards a week after the shootings.

So I went back, this time with photographer Jamie Peachey. You can read the story, part of a project called Shadow Dwellers, here; and be sure to watch the video Peachey created.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at