Two mornings a week, Peggy Coffelt drives from her home in Oakdale to Recovery Café Frogtown in St. Paul, often bringing crowd-pleasers like homemade macaroni and cheese and banana bread to share with people living with addiction and other mental health challenges.
Coffelt doesn’t have a substance use disorder, but she comes to this nearly two-year-old recovery community organization for community connections and support. “I’m here more for my grief,” she explained. “I lost both my husband and mother one day apart. This is a safe place for me to talk about my feelings.”
The nonprofit Recovery Café Frogtown operates out of Faith Lutheran’s sprawling basement, which includes a kitchen, a large meeting space with two pianos and pool table, a gymnasium, and individual meeting rooms where members hold peer circles, AA meetings and individual sessions with recovery coaches.
The café is a welcoming space for people from a range of backgrounds, said Tasha Walsh, Recovery Café Frogtown chief executive officer. The café is open to the public three days a week — Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — and usually as many as 15 people show up, some looking to work on their recovery, and others, like Coffelt, seeking support for other mental health concerns.
“We have people who come here all three days,” Walsh said. “We have one man who is grieving and has a lot of other issues. He comes straight after work around 12:30 or 1, and then he stays as long as we’re open. On Wednesdays, he’ll stay from 1 in the afternoon until 7 at night.”
For Coffelt, who grew up in the neighborhood, the Café has become much more than a support group. “They are like part of my family,” she said. “They know about me and are there to support me.”
Earlier this year, Recovery Café Frogtown found out it would receive $290,000 a year for the next three years as part of a Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) grant staff had applied for in response to a request for proposals issued to recovery community organizations around the state.
The news that her young organization had received the grant felt like cause for celebration to Walsh. Previous to the award, Recovery Café Frogtown’s annual budget had been just $50,000, funds gathered from a capacity grant awarded by the national Recovery Café Network. Walsh considered the DHS grant a vote of confidence in the café’s work and was excited about the projects that the organization could complete with the money.
“We were in awe,” Walsh said. “We were like, ‘That’s going to open up a huge world for us.’ We thought, ‘We can hire an outreach coordinator, a resource coordinator, we can add additional programming.’ There is so much more that we can do with it.”
With that growth on the horizon, Walsh decided to quit her day job to focus on her work at the café. But five months after being informed that her nonprofit won the grant, Walsh said that Recovery Café Frogtown still has not seen any of the promised money. And she’s not alone: Many other Minnesota recovery community organizations that found out in July 2022 that they’d been awarded grants have not yet seen their contracts executed or their funds released.
That means their dreams of expansion — and even their regular programming — have been put on hold. For Walsh, the hardship is also personal: To make ends meet, she has had to pick up a second job.
“It’s a struggle now, because we’re back to square one,” she said. “I thought we should be able to eke by for a few months and then the grant money would be here. But then the money was supposed to be here in August and then September, October, November and now here we are in December.”
A systemic — not malicious — problem
As executive director of Minnesota Recovery Connection, Minnesota’s oldest and largest recovery community organization, Wendy Jones is a respected leader in the community. Led and governed by people in recovery, the nonprofit is focused on filling care gaps by connecting people to support and services that make long-term recovery from substance use disorder possible. One way her organization does that, Jones explained, is to support newer organizations like Recovery Café Frogtown and help them get up and running.
Jones, who has worked in nonprofits for 35 years, does not lay blame for this delay on individual staffers at DHS, many of whom she believes are committed to doing good work within the community. But she does say that this funding bottleneck, while worse than normal, is not completely uncharacteristic in her years of working with the behemoth state agency.
“It is a systemic issue with DHS,” Jones said. “I want to acknowledge that most of the people I’ve worked with at DHS are very committed. They are trying really hard. It seems to be a system that is incredibly outdated and broken that people get lost in.”
Even the process of applying for a DHS grant is, Jones said, “very outdated and cumbersome,” with complicated and “dense” RFPs that are difficult for small, community-based organizations like Recovery Café Frogtown to navigate. “This is a huge barrier for a lot of applicants, especially small organizations that are doing on-the-ground community work,” she said.
For the small recovery community organizations around the state that were told they had received the grants, waiting as much as five months for the awards to be issued is a true hardship, Jones said. Her organization, for instance, has had to front payroll money for Recovery Café Frogtown just to keep the organization running. Though Minnesota Recovery Connection, with 18 employees, seven AmeriCorps workers and an annual budget of around $1.5 million is large in the world of recovery community organizations, it’s still a stretch. And their own DHS grant money ($300,000 directed to the startup Minnesota Alliance of Recovery Community Organizations of which Minnesota Recovery Connection is a fiscal sponsor) has also not arrived.
“I don’t have a lot of margin,” Jones said. “I’m always thinking, ‘Am I going to make payroll this month?’ For me to be taking on covering Frogtown’s payroll is a big sacrifice. I just took out a line of credit at our bank to make sure we don’t bounce payroll.”
Staff at DHS acknowledge the hardship that many small recovery community organizations might be facing during the wait for their state grant contracts to be executed. Eric Grumdahl, assistant commissioner-behavioral health, housing and deaf and hard of hearing services administration, said that he and his colleagues at the department advise that workers at the nonprofits practice patience and understanding.
As is often the case with government programs, the wheels on this grant project have moved slowly. “Federal approval did not happen until the end of February 2022,” Grumdahl said. “The state received considerable interest in the RFP. The contracting process from start to finish — RFP to executed contracts — typically takes 6-9 months, and currently, the contracts are in the final stages of execution.”
But progress is now being made, Grumdahl added.
“We are pleased to share that nearly half of the RCO (recovery community organization) grant contracts have been executed or are awaiting final signatures,” he said. “Though we have come across a couple of barriers, including staffing transitions and a transition to a new process for routing contracts, DHS is working diligently to finalize and execute the remaining contracts as quickly as possible.”
Jones said that while she understands the wheels of government turn slowly, she also believes that she and other grantees should remember that this money, like all government funding, is taxpayer-funded. “This is not generosity on the part of DHS,” she said. “This is not philanthropy. The state wants these services to happen. DHS is the middle entity. When the federal or government says, ‘We see these problems. We want this money to go to address these problems,’ that can only be done at a community level. So these organizations are essentially being hired to address these problems.”
It is the department’s job to channel the money through an RFP process, Jones said. Because addiction and mental illness are at crisis levels in the state, funding the work of community-based organizations is key: “We are dealing with critical services in the community and you are not getting that money channeled to where it is supposed to go in a timely manner.”
She understands that in this difficult time, DHS staff are also faced with mountains of challenges, but she is concerned that the funding crisis among recovery community organizations may fade into the background: “People are dying, which I know is a cliché. But this is not funding that is just superfluous. These are important services that are supposed to be getting out into the community.”
For the first part of her life, Walsh lived in a house just a few steps away from Faith Lutheran. Much later, after struggling with addiction, she reconnected with Sheri Cindrich, a childhood friend from the neighborhood who was also in recovery. One night, struggling with her addiction and looking for a supportive community, Cindrich went online and learned about recovery cafés and became inspired to open one in her old neighborhood.
Cindrich’s late parents were deeply committed to the community and the church. She thought it would be a good idea to start a recovery café at Faith Lutheran to honor their memory. When the church agreed to let the program rent their basement, Cindirch reached out to her old friend.
“She said, ‘I have this idea. What do you think?’” Walsh recalled. “I’m like, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it.’ I was super-pumped.” For the first year, Walsh volunteered her time at Recovery Café Frogtown, but then, when the program received its first grant, she decided she could cut back hours at her full-time job to focus on being in person at Recovery Café.
“I took a leap of faith and I threw it up to God and I said, ‘OK, put me where you want me to go,’” Walsh said. When she felt confident life was leading her in that direction, she jumped into the job with her whole heart.
Money is tight at the café, a fact that Walsh thinks will always be the case. But the delayed DHS funding has meant that the nonprofit has not been able to pay vendors like the music therapist or the fitness class instructors that lead groups for members every week. Some instructors have agreed to keep working with the understanding that they will be paid when the money comes through, but others have had to put their classes on hold. And other plans in the works at the café, like a barista-training program, have been postponed.
Every day when she comes into work, Walsh tells herself to feel optimistic. “I believe that the money will come,” she said. “We were awarded it. We have a letter. I don’t see why if the state is sitting on this lump sum. It’s just having patience waiting for it to get here.”
To help fill financial gaps until state grant funds are approved, staff at Recovery Café Frogtown have created a GiveMN fundraising page.