Rise and Shine

Rise and Shine

As the sun rises on New Haven, a crowd gathers at Sunrise Cafe. There isn’t a sign, but its patrons know where to go. Starting at 7 a.m. every weekday, they enter through a basement door at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James in Wooster Square—known in the neighborhood as “Saint PJ”—and line up to place their orders. Then they find a seat at one of the long tables covered with white tablecloths in the undercroft, its walls decorated with life-sized paintings of heroes and saints, and wait to be served.

Back in the kitchen, cook Julio Rodriguez and a staff of volunteers prepare the food and carry out meals to be delivered to customers by name. What they won’t deliver is a check. Sunrise Cafe’s hot breakfast is always free of charge—no signup required, no questions asked.

sponsored by

New Haven Symphony Orchestra

One January morning the menu included scrambled eggs, sausage, English muffins, coffee, juice and smoothies. Other days, patrons might find oatmeal, French toast or pancakes on offer. “We don’t have a lot of variety in terms of what’s in the kitchen, but we have some,” says Art Hunt, a volunteer who helps with the cafe’s finances. “But it’s the personal act of delivering the food to them while they’re sitting down” that matters. The cafe’s founders “wanted guests to understand how much we respected them. We wanted to kind of celebrate their individual dignity and make them feel comfortable and welcome.”

This “innovative community breakfast program,” as a press release calls it, will turn five years old this spring. It has recently become independent of its sponsoring organization, Liberty Community Services, by earning a 501c3 nonprofit designation. The breakfast place was the brainchild of longtime New Haven civic leaders Ellen M. Gabrielle, who died in 2019, and Anne Calabresi, who still, in her eighties, shows up to volunteer and serves as board president. In 2015, with the support of John Bradley, then executive director of Liberty, the women brought into being their dream of a “space where people lacking permanent homes could find safety, warmth and nourishment in the morning not just as an alternative to being outside but as a preferred place to meet friends and be welcomed with love, dignity and respect,” as the cafe’s website puts it.

That kitchen table warmth is in evidence as patrons hang out, converse and even pitch in when it’s time to fold up the tables and chairs—a chore that’s done every morning so others can use the space. A woman named Amber says she’s been coming to Sunrise Cafe every day for more than a year. “It gets me out of the cold when it’s cold, gets me a nice warm meal, and I have relationships now with people in the community. It’s like our own little community,” she says. “We’re not here trying to bother anybody or cause any fuss in the neighborhood. We’re just, unfortunately, homeless. That can happen to anybody.” She adds a shout-out for Thelma Ragsdale, the operations manager: “Thelma, she’s the best… She will do whatever she can to make sure that we’re okay.”

What Ragsdale and the rest do includes dishing up not only breakfast but also service providers. Liberty is there every day to help with housing and job training. Columbus House, providing shelter and housing services, comes to breakfast about twice a week. At least once a week, a nurse from Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center and a psychiatrist from Connecticut Mental Health Center stop by and continue to track patients they’ve seen in order to keep care consistent. Many of Sunrise’s patrons return on Saturdays when the cafe is closed to visit St. Paul and St. James’s Loaves and Fishes food pantry. The church’s clothes closet sometimes steps in even during cafe hours when it’s officially closed to help with fresh socks and other desperately needed items. The Connecticut Food Bank is also a big supporter; it provides some of the food that’s served each morning.

Sunrise Cafe isn’t the only place to get a free breakfast in New Haven, Ragsdale notes, but she says it’s the only place that allows clients to come early and linger until cleanup. She knows many of the people who show up each morning by name and points out where they routinely sit. “Here, you’re allowed to eat breakfast and socialize, whereas other soup kitchens, there you eat and you leave,” she says. “If a person has the opportunity to sit, drink a cup of coffee and, if he wants to, read the paper, you know, that’s treating a person with dignity and respect.”

The staff of three—including Ragsdale, Rodriguez and guest ambassador Paul Bacon—and a team of about 20 volunteers serves between 100 and 240 people on any given morning. Many patrons are on government benefits, which arrive on the first of the month; by the 10th, Ragsdale says, the number of people coming for breakfast starts to go up. They expect to serve about 37,000 meals this year. Both Ragsdale and Hunt emphasize that the cafe is literally open to everyone, even those who aren’t food-insecure or who don’t live in New Haven. “If you want to take the bus down from Brattleboro, Vermont, and have breakfast with us, you are welcome in our door,” Hunt says. Neighbors with good jobs and nice apartments are welcome, too, Ragsdale adds.

So are donations and volunteers. Hunt names fundraising, marketing and finance as areas where he could use some help. Those willing to prepare and serve food can join the ranks of retired couples, Yale students, neighbors and even those doing court-ordered community service in the kitchen and on the floor.

It’s after 9 a.m., and amid the crash of tables being folded and put away, one guest plays a little upright piano that stands off to the side of the dining area. Another swoops in to give Ragsdale a hug. It’s just another morning at Sunrise Cafe.

Sunrise Cafe
Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James – 57 Olive St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 7:30-9:15; closed during New Haven Public Schools weather closures

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Art Hunt and Thelma Ragsdale.

More Stories