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HERB BENHAM: Change comes one cup at a time

Start with a cup of coffee. Coffee, a place to sit and time to sit there without somebody telling you have to leave because you can’t pay the bill or don't look the part.

Cafe M is part of the M Street Navigation Center, the homeless shelter run by the Community Action Partnership of Kern located on M Street behind white transport buses, a lot owned by the Fire Department and two buildings housing the Veterans Administration.

It’s no Starbucks, no Peet’s, no Cafe Smitten but just because it isn’t, doesn’t mean Cafe M is not important to its clientele.

Its "clientele” are the homeless residents who drink coffee, tea and spend time with volunteers, who make them feel welcome, listen and give them the impression their life is worth something.

Run through CityServe churches, the cafe is open three days a week.


Comebacks are hard, and maybe no harder than in the homeless community that can be a snarl of bad luck, unfortunate decisions, mental health challenges, drugs and support systems that have disappeared or maybe weren’t there to begin with. If nothing else, Cafe M is shelter from the storm, heat and life, which comes fast and keeps coming.

Located inside a repurposed wooden storage area, the cafe has ambiance with a string of Christmas lights, chalkboard with positive messages and donated navy blue carpet as well as functionality with a long counter, coffee pots, high table with bar chairs and regular tables to take a rest. There's also a dressing room for job interview outfits and bins behind the counters filled with toiletries and donated shoes and clothing.

I heard about Cafe M from Karen Poteete, a friend who in her job as a teacher at the Discovery Center has seen her share of the homeless and the displaced. Poteete is a volunteer along with her sister, Robin Kunzmann, and a host of other good souls including Mary Rios, the volunteer coordinator.

Laurie Hughey, the center's program manager, gave me a tour when I visited recently. The center is a 24-hour facility, providing shelter beds (50 beds now, 100 post-COVID guidelines), three meals a day, showers, a sturdy 32-gallon rolling bin to store possessions, laundry services, job training, medical and mental health assistance, pet care (post-COVID, too), and bike racks.

The idea is get people ready for work and permanent housing. The Navigation Center is modern, impressive and beats sleeping in doorways or camping in the riverbed.


The tour ended at Cafe M. Customers started coming in at 3:30 p.m. In addition to the coffee, conversation and a seat at the table, the draw is deodorant, shampoo, conditioners, soap, underwear, linen, towels, flip-flops and clothes that volunteers distribute from the plastic bins behind the counter.

Most of the guests were unfailingly polite, grateful that somebody cared and would listen and amazed that they could sit and talk in a relaxed setting.

“We’d like to be open on a daily basis,” Hughey said. “Have a place where people could come, read poetry, play instruments, socialize and give each other encouragement. Our people go to the cafe for the same reason most of us do: to be able to sit, be a normal human being and talk about life.”

Poteete likens the Navigation Center and Cafe M to "'The Wizard of Oz,' when suddenly, black and white turns to color."

Already, there are successes.

“Stephon was homeless, had no anchor and no hope,” Poteete said. “He entered the Navigation Center, and next thing you know, he has a social worker, is enrolled in classes at BC, which will guarantee him a job if he graduates in six weeks.” (Businesses have stepped up in conjunction with BC to give the grads a job, on a three-month probationary trial.)

“I was heading to the coffee shop one morning and out walks Stephon, clad in black and red from head to toe. I told him he looked sharp. He said, 'I’m going to college!'”

Small steps can be good steps.

“We are not sure we are changing our lives but a smile and a cup of coffee go a long way,” Poteete said.


Tammy Lopez, 43, used to make a living playing the piano at church weddings but had an abusive husband and a host of other problems and became homeless, lost custody of her three kids and ended up living in the river bottom.

“A cup of coffee is a real treat,” she said. “It allows me to relax so I can allow God to carry me through this.”

At the end of the conversation, a man sitting two tables away asked, “Are we allowed to get more coffee?”

Yes. A second cup and maybe a second chance, too.


Cafe M welcomes contributions of hygiene items, clothing and blankets, all of which have to be new. Donations can be dropped off at the Navigation Center at 2900 M St. Call 336-5236 for more information.

Contact The Californian’s Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.