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Economy / Jobs

In Brighton there’s a cafe that saves lives

There is nothing hip about the Cascade Coffee Shop in Brighton. The furnishings are well worn rather than retro, the inspirational quotations fixed to the wall are unironic, and the menu wouldn’t startle a visitor teleported into the premises from an age that never knew avocado on toast.

But the customers don’t hang out to look cool: they come in to save their lives. The cafe is a not-for-profit community centre run by, and for, people with experience of recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

According to the café managers’ report for its annual general meeting at the end of last year, on average 92 people a month come into the cafe because they have hit rock bottom. As the report states, sometimes all they need is a sympathetic ear; other times they are looking for long term engagement with a recovery coach. They are given help to find rehab, and supported while they wait for that to become available.

Over coffee last week, the founder of the café, Pete Davies, told me it is a prime example of an asset based community development. To explain what that is, he paraphrases John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your community can do for you – ask what you can do for your community.”

The café’s concept was pioneered by US academics John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann in the early nineties. The approach draws on the skills and lived experiences of people in the community to make positive changes.

One criticism is that communities may not always have the breadth of skills needed. Davies told me that in Brighton there is a deep and wide pool of volunteers able to deliver valuable creative projects such as writing workshops, the Cascade Chorus Recovery Choir and the monthly open mic night. On the other hand, he points out, it took six weeks to find someone to fix a window smashed by vandals.

It is arguable, even, that a project like the café helps to plug a gap in public health provision created by cuts in government spending. According to the King’s Fund health charity, spending on public health is set to fall by 5.2 per cent, from £2.6bn in 2013-14 to £2.5bn in 2017-18. The fund says that this follows a £200m in-year cut to public health spending in 2015-16 – and points to further cuts, averaging 3.9 per cent each year between 2016-17 and 2020-21.

There are 35 volunteers working in the Cascade Café, in recovery coaching, putting together creative projects and running mutual aid groups. Many of the volunteers are also involved with other organisations in the city such as the Brighton Housing Trust and the Pavilions addiction treatment services. The coffee shop covers volunteer expenses which come to £1,200 per month. 

The café and its staff.

But Davies is under no illusion that he must rely on local good will to keep the café going. “In these times of austerity, mental health services, substance abuse services are the poor relation. They’re not sexy. We need to hustle to get what we need.”

Those hustling skills were honed in the early days of the project. As part of his initiative in organising the Brighton Recovery Walk, Davies visited Birmingham, Manchester and London and saw what communities were able to achieve under their own steam.

“Brighton had a reputation as a groovy happening city, but recovering addicts had to rely on statutory services,” he says. “People with addictions are not always comfortable doing that.”

He found a landlord who was able to offer derelict building for redevelopment. “We needed a building in the right area which is where most of the active users hang out. We put the word out to people in recovery. We went around builders merchants and explained what we wanted to do, and the response was fantastic. People with relatives in recovery or who friends who had died gave us materials at cost.”

Davies is frank about his own past substance abuse (“I thought I was Ernest Hemingway but I couldn’t read my own writing”), and believes it is the fact that people can share experiences with peers in an informal setting that is crucial to it success.


Nicky Edland works behind the counter at the café and says the support she has received is helping her put her life back on track.

She says, “I was married for 20 odd years and after I got divorced I didn’t know how to do life. I would go home from work, shut the door, and the drinking spiralled out of control.

“I need to start getting back into work. A big part of my story is isolation and the café allows me to connect with people.”

Working alongside Nicky, Ryan Golden also values the sense of community.

 “I find it really good that it’s not formal,” he says. I’ve been involved with substance abuse services since I was 14. I had some bad experiences with key workers with dodgy attitudes.

“This is run by real people who get it. They have been there themselves.”
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