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Damian Murphy is managing Canada’s first Recovery Café.

New Recovery Café is offering Vancouver unique alternative for recovery journeys

The café offers an original member-led recovery community that focuses on more than just alcohol and substance addiction.

By Cameron MacCuish , in City , on February 15, 2022

Damian Murphy had been a manager of the Kettle on Burrard supportive housing complex in downtown Vancouver for seven years when he decided to pursue an opportunity to lead a new organization that is “turning the model on its head” for Vancouver’s recovery community centres.

The new Recovery Café aims to provide an innovative alternative model for those seeking recovery, not just from drugs and alcohol, but from whatever trauma, personal issues, or specific addiction a person is dealing with.

The café provides a new recovery circle approach by allowing the exact same people to meet weekly, which gives members a chance to deeply get to know each other, unlike Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous meetings where it could be anyone there, according to Murphy.

He hopes that the recovery circles will provide an integral structure of accountability and a dependable community of “recovery capital” sometimes missing in conventional addiction treatment approaches.

Murphy said that a benefit of having the same group every week is that it provides social networks of support to keep members accountable to their recovery goals.

He said that during his time at the Kettle on Burrard, he saw that some tenants were not willing to make positive changes to their lifestyles and, as a result, he saw many overdoses and deaths from substance use at the housing site.

While the housing site offered recovery programs, they were voluntary, and many tenants chose not to participate.

“I think when this opportunity came along to work … with people who are intentional on their recovery journey [and that] was really appealing to me,” said Murphy.

“At the Recovery Café, there are some expectations of membership. People are supposed to show up every week for their support meeting, and it’s more of a commitment to their stated goals.”

The Recovery Café is currently open to the public at 637 E. Hastings St., while their permanent location at 620 Clark Dr. is under construction.

The new Recovery Café, operating since Jan. 4, is running at a pop-up location on East Hastings Street.

This coming June, the café will move to a larger, permanent location on Clark Drive that is under construction.

Currently, there is a network of 27 Recovery Cafés operating across the United States.

Kenneth Paquette, director of community services at The Kettle Foundation, said he was motivated to bring the Recovery Café model to Vancouver because it is a distinctive and niche service that Vancouver did not have.

“I saw it was unique, and no one was providing it here,” said Paquette.

Murphy emphasized that the café is not directed only towards people recovering from substance and alcohol addiction like most recovery community centres.

“The [Narcotics Anonymous] and [Alcoholics Anonymous] models … are focused solely on recovery from … drugs and alcohol,” said Murphy. “At the café, we say everyone is in recovery from something.”

Damian Murphy is standing in front of a list of skills and challenges that café members said they would like to develop and overcome.

Murphy pointed out that several aspects of the Recovery Café could appeal to those who do not like or work well with the AA and NA models.

He said that while AA and NA meetings are all over the city and only generally last an hour, the Recovery Café is always in a fixed location that is available for members to come and spend the entire day if they want.

Another aspect that differentiates the Recovery Café model is the recovery circle, which Murphy says is the café’s altered version of an AA or NA meeting.

“If you show up to an NA or AA meeting, it could be anybody there. But the circle stays the same,” said Murphy. “You might have 20 different circles running in your café, but members are always in the same circle with the same people.”

Ruth Fleming, an employee of the café, said that members having the same group every week provides a social structure of “loving accountability” that allows members to check in on each other consistently to see if each member is achieving their stated goals.

Murphy said the purpose of the recovery circle is not to prescribe a traditional and predetermined recovery treatment but to allow members to discuss and draw conclusions about whatever recovery options would work best for themselves.

Andrea Wright, executive director of the Vancouver Police Foundation, which is funding the café’s pop-up location, said a unique characteristic that attracted her foundation to the café is that its members are all expected to complete tasks to maintain the café or help it function.

“I like that its members … are responsible for its operation and its sustainability. That is turning the model on its head frankly for service provisions within the Downtown Eastside community,” said Wright.

The Recovery Café emphasizes having a safe and comfortable drug- and alcohol-free environment that Damian Murphy says is meant to feel almost like stepping into a living room.

Murphy said that a long-term goal of the café is to have staff facilitate recruitment and administrative duties while having the recovery circles entirely run by the members.

“We want to see members taking leading roles in the café and giving back that way,” said Murphy.

“A goal in our temporary location is to get about 10 to 20 members,” he said. “We would like to have 100 members in our first year.”

The café currently has six members, which Murphy said is an amazing response so far.

“[The Recovery Café] gives people an opportunity to take pride in their work and lives and take pride in being leaders and mentors to other people,” Wright said. “It just feels like it would be a stronger approach to helping people stay clean and stay living positive lives than what we currently see.”