Paying it forward: How this bookstore coffee shop is making a difference in Adams Morgan
Karoly Freeman sat down on the outside patio at The Potter’s House on a routine Monday afternoon in late March. After some hopeful warm days, the cold was back again. He sipped the hot coffee with sugar and light cream and sighed. Freeman smiled and greeted several people walking out of the coffee shop and bookstore.
A 63 year old native Adams Morgan resident and veteran, Freeman experienced homelessness 13 years ago. Now, he has an apartment and gives back by giving haircuts to people experiencing homelessness.
The Potter’s House offers a variety of services, including a free meal program and soon, a job-training program. The Potter’s House is one of few establishments offering free meals in the District, let alone in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
People experiencing homelessness face a number of obstacles when it comes to dining. Aside from the difficulty of finding a steady meal, people who live without housing are forced to contend with locks on bathrooms, being turned away from restaurants based on appearance and anti-homeless architecture. Without access to bank accounts, credit cards or smartphones, people experiencing homelessness have reported having a challenging time finding ways to pay establishments that are increasingly going cashless as well.
Freeman walks through The Potter’s House doors multiple times a week to take advantage of Pay it Forward, a free meal program. The way it works is simple: if you need a meal, you just walk in during business hours and ask. The Potter’s House operates from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., daily.
“Potter’s House is a safe haven,” Freeman said. “Potter’s House is a gift from the Lord. Potter’s House is a place where saints gravitate. Potter’s House is a place where I can meet my friends and know that if I come up a few times I see those that I haven’t seen. It’s a place where I feel really comfortable.”
The Potter’s House has served clientele from a variety of backgrounds since its founding in 1960, said Leigh Tivol, the executive director of The Potter’s House. The place has been a landmark in the neighborhood for many, including Freeman.
“At The Potter’s House, you can certainly come in and get your $5 vanilla oat latte,” Tivol said. “You can also come in if you’re in need. You can get a free meal and a cup of coffee and a warm welcome.”
Tivol emphasized that all are welcome at the combination coffeehouse and bookstore, especially at the Pay it Forward program.
“There’s no other requirement other than that folks just be kind to one another,” she said.
The meals offered change based on food donations, Tivol said, but typically there are three options: a homemade biscuit sandwich with egg and cheddar, a biscuit sandwich with breaded chicken or soup and a biscuit. Free bagels are also available periodically.
When Tivol joined The Potter’s House as executive director in 2019, the nonprofit had distributed about 1,000 free meals, she said. By comparison, in 2021, the group distributed around 20,000 free meals. They are on track to beat that metric this year.
“It’s humbling, and a real honor and privilege to run this program,” Tivol said.
But at the moment, the program is a bit underwater, Tivol said. They’ve only raised 50% of what’s needed to cover the meals given away this year. They are currently seeking donations to alleviate this pressure, she said.
“If we’re going to continue to meet the needs of every individual who comes in here and not turn people away, the most important need that we have are those financial gifts,” Tivol said.
Jamese Easley, the assistant manager at The Potter’s House, said her favorite part of working at the coffeehouse is the Pay It Forward program.
“It makes me feel good,” she said.
Easley’s connection to The Potter’s House, which was originally founded in 1960, goes back two generations. Easley’s mother also works at The Potter’s House, and her grandmother worked as a cook previously. The place means a lot to her, she said.
“I’ve been here since I was a baby,” she said.
Patrons can find an array of left-leaning books including self-help guides and graphic novels. Landmark authors of literature and poetry such as Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood are on display, in addition to newer names such as Amanda Gorman.
In the next couple of months, The Potter’s House will also be offering a hospitality industry job training program. The Potter’s House has trained individuals informally before.
“It’s a great place to come and get your feet wet, and to get the extra training and both learning how the operations work but also building those soft skills,” Tivol said. “Not just getting a job but keeping a job, communication, navigating conflict, what to do when something goes wrong, how to climb the ladder.”
All in all, community and belonging are central to The Potter’s House, Tivol said.
“It’s the soul of the place,” Tivol said. “There are many, many institutions, where unhoused neighbors or neighbors who are struggling with particular challenges would not be welcome, and where other guests would not want to be around those individuals. But the folks who come in The Potter’s House, everybody here comes in as a human being first. We do the best we can to meet needs in any way that we can.”
As Freeman shook hands with yet another Potter’s House patron, he said the establishment is the backbone of the Adams Morgan community. The neighborhood has changed a lot throughout his life. People used to throw block parties, and would smile and speak with their neighbors, even if they were strangers. His mother used to cook and give dinners to people who were hungry on Sundays. Those kinds of things don’t happen as much in Adams Morgan anymore, but The Potter’s House has been a positive constant, Freeman said.
If The Potter’s House suddenly went away, Freeman would be “crestfallen,” he said.
“This … is the last bastion of the real Adams Morgan community,” he said.