Atlanta's Cafe 458 Offers More Than Free Lunch—It's the In Spot for People Who Have Nowhere Else

updated 07/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1988 01:00AM

At Atlanta's Cafe 458 the specialty is respect, and that, like everything else on the menu, is on the house. During a typical lunch hour, maître d' Jim Link escorts a diner to one of the tables. "Have a seat," he says, graciously greeting the woman by name. "A waitress will be with you in a moment."

Here in the bright and cheery dining room, with fresh carnations on each table and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons in the air, something remarkable has happened: One of Atlanta's 3,500 soup-kitchen regulars has become a valued patron of what is perhaps the city's most exclusive place to meet and eat. Lunch at the café is by reservation only, and to get a reservation you must have no home.

The idea of feeding Atlanta's dispossessed in a restaurant was cooked up by Rev. A.B. Short and his friend Bob Freeman, both of them activists on behalf of the homeless. "We started talking about dignity," says Short. "We started thinking about the things ordinary people do when they go out to eat and about giving the homeless a place where they could interact."

Relying partly on donated labor and materials, Short and Freeman began a total renovation last October of the trashed-out building at 458 Edgewood Avenue. Cafe 458 opened in June, after a federal grant was obtained to help pay for the food, which is prepared and served by a volunteer staff.

Since the café opened, up to 50 of Atlanta's outcasts have been on the restaurant's A-list each day at noon. Their reservations—arranged through shelters and labor pools—run for a month. After that, others will be invited to dine. "Aren't we lucky?" asks Lela Hadsell, 66, who's been sleeping under bridges. "It's quiet and pretty here, the food is very good, and we can come right in and sit down. This feels like home."

"It's nice to choose what you want off a menu," says James Cooley, 32, who usually queues up in the soup line at a nearby church. "Here, someone gets it and brings it to you." Cooley helped to renovate the building. Other grateful patrons who offer to mop up are invited to join the café's regular volunteers, but the staff makes it clear to guests that they are being served with no strings attached.

The hope was that friendships, otherwise hard for the homeless to come by, would blossom in this comfortable setting. Sure enough, Lela and James have become allies; they dine together every day, and James has arranged for Lela to move into one of the wooden huts put up on vacant land by a group of Atlanta's young professionals (PEOPLE, May 9, 1988). Café volunteers also try to get to know each of the patrons and to help them solve some of their problems. "Food is the reason for us being together," says Short, "but maybe over coffee and dessert we can find out what they see as their next step." Already, the staff has steered some patrons to medical care and legal help, but the social-service aspect of Cafe 458 is low-key. "We know we're not going to make a dent in the homeless situation," says Short. "We just hope this will affirm the individual's worth to himself."

Certainly 61-year-old Frank Ellis, though still homeless and jobless, feels less alone at the café. He remembers going to other restaurants, the kind where they hand you a check at meal's end—"but I ain't been for a long time," he admits. "This makes you feel like somebody cares about you, like you've crawled from a dark hole into the light."

—Frazier Moore, with Joyce Leviton in Atlanta

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