“[Curt’s Café] is a non-profit that is a workforce training program in an open café concept.
“We work specifically with the highest at-risk young adults, ages 15 to 24.
“We teach work skills, life skills, experiential opportunities and we have full-time social workers to work with them on complex trauma issues, on homelessness, on food insecurity, domestic violence issues [and] anger management. Everything that comes along with a young person who’s had judicial contact or has been in prison or is living in a violent situation for years or has been homeless since they were 12, 13, 14 years old.
“And then we help them get jobs.
“By the time they are out of our program we have found them safe housing, but they all kind of came in raw. They’re often living on the street and then they’re coming into the restaurant after probably sleeping under a bridge with a number of other people, so the students are not being safe [from COVID-19].
“The staff is being as protective to them and to themselves as much as possible. We’re doing our best to stay 6 feet apart except our kitchen is only 10 feet so when you’re sending 450 meals out of there that’s not so easy to do. Our students are very vulnerable, that makes our staff very vulnerable. So we are just doing the best that we can.
“Curt is an acronym for Cultivating Unique Restaurant Training. And Curt is also my business partner from my first business. Curt was my brother-in-law. My sister Nancy and my brother-in-law, Curt, and I opened Food for Thought about 35 years ago. And Curt died from lung cancer when he was 53.
“We closed the café in Highland Park in the front but that’s because we were doing 2,227 meals out the back door. We’re feeding homeless shelters and underserved people who are shut-ins. We thought doing one cup of coffee at a time was putting our staff in compromising situations [with the coronavirus] but we could serve thousands of people that really, really needed help out the back door. So, we just closed to the day-to-day business and are doing everything like on a catering mode for underserved communities.
“We’re serving twice as much food right now. We have over 10 students that are coming in daily. We have 12 staff on the front line preparing food and delivering food.
“Some of [the students] are at a high capacity in helping and some are just there because they are very hungry. They are homeless, so they need a place to go during the day. They are working on making changes.
“In our country we should not have children who don’t have three meals a day. And we have a lot of that. We just picked up a family of seven that hasn’t eaten for two or three days.
“The closing of the cafés’ service has a big impact on the community. The cafés are a huge benefit to our students. They have a purpose every day, they have an opportunity to give back every day, but it’s also a huge benefit to the community because they have a safe, funky kind of different space to hang out in and we have a lot of regular customers who do just that. They don’t spend a ton of money, but they have a very safe space that everybody knows them and everyone loves them and we can sit around and talk to them, because we’re not the fastest café in the world. … So [closing to the public has] been tough for the community and that’s been tough for our students and staff.
“Forty-six percent of our funding is through café sales, so that’s hurting us, obviously. A lot of people have independently sent us checks. Some very, very generous. And as an example, the knitters who come in once a week have been sending us what they’d spend at the restaurant every week when they would knit with us.
“My previous meeting was with the board of directors. They were obviously concerned with me going after these SBA loans and the payroll protection and all that kind of stuff because they’re saying that they’re loans which they ultimately are responsible for. But they’re (the government) saying that they’ll probably forgive the loans if you use them for what you say you’re going to use them for, but no one’s saying anything for sure.
“Even with SBA, I’ve applied twice. I have no clue if they’ve received any of my information. I’ve sent over 10 emails. No one’s emailed me back except with a blanket ‘Thank you for your question. We’ll get back to you.’ I was on hold on the phone for almost two hours the other day. When I finally got someone, she was like, ‘Yeah, we don’t know. We don’t know if we’ve received it or not. We don’t know.’
“All of us in non-profit, we don’t run large budgets. We don’t have money in the bank and we’re doing essential work. All of us, no matter what, we are always doing essential work. Keeping young people from living on the street is essential work. Keeping young people out of jail is essential work.
“I applaud Pritzker for releasing 500 or 600 people from jail. … I know jail is terrible as far as this pandemic goes, as well as any day of the week, except if you have not put things in place. … You now have 600 people that might be even higher at risk. They don’t have a place to stay because they don’t know if they can stay in subsidized housing. They’re certainly not going to pick up an apartment when their last place of residence was Cook County Jail. And they don’t have any food. So c’mon. They could have done better with that, right?
“I was in the café doing something a couple weeks ago. I was watching the students take an order to the car so they could deliver the food. I’ve never seen them so purpose driven. And then I was able to have a conversation with them and say, ‘You know, you guys are saving lives now. You are transforming just working in a café into saving lives.’ They were like ‘I know. We know. We’re really important right now with all this mess going on.’ And to see the light in their eyes is a gift I will never forget.”
Executive director of Curt’s Café