When Community Cafe opened near Raleigh, North Carolina, last year, locals in the small town welcomed the new restaurant with open arms.

They flocked to the bright green building to buy cheap Southern staples and to support the cafe’s charitable mission: to provide training and jobs for people in rehab who were recovering from addiction.

“We’re cooking what the community wants to eat,” chef and rehab participant Jerry Knutson said in a local news article at the time. “Biscuits and gravy, omelets and eggs – country breakfast at a good price.”

There’s a reason Community Cafe’s prices are so low. Former participants at the rehab told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that many of the menu items were purchased with their food stamps.

The cafe is operated by Recovery Connections Community, a local drug rehab program. Under federal law, some rehabs are allowed to use their clients’ food stamps to buy food for people in their program. Recovery Connections has permission to do so.

But instead of buying food for their clients, Recovery Connections’ leaders, Phillip and Jennifer Warren, used the food stamps to purchase food for themselves, more than two dozen former participants said. Five sources said they also used the food stamps to stock the restaurant.

It’s the latest revelation in an ongoing Reveal investigation into problems at Recovery Connections Community. Rather than providing treatment, the Warrens put participants to work without pay, 16 hours per day, as untrained caregivers at adult care homes for elderly and disabled people. Reveal found that rehab participants were accused of stealing drugs and abusing patients at the homes. Meanwhile, the rehab’s founders solicited donations in the rehab’s name, only to keep the gifts for themselves.

Neither of the Warrens responded to requests for comment.

Dominique Shivers is among the former participants who said she witnessed the Warrens misusing food stamps. When Shivers started working as an unpaid cook at Community Cafe in 2017, she said she and others accompanied Jennifer Warren as she used their food stamps to buy hot dogs, eggs, milk and other ingredients for the restaurant.

“Me and Jennifer would go to Sam’s Club and get a big dolly and shop on people’s food stamps,” said Heather Fox, who attended Recovery Connections at the time.

Shivers and others then cooked the food and sold it to the public.

Rehab participants said they frequently went hungry while Phillip and Jennifer Warren used their food stamps to purchase food for themselves.

“We got $200 a month in food stamps, but yet we never had any food,” said Cindy Gilbert, a former participant.

Jennifer Warren has a history of misusing food stamps. When she ran another rehab program, she was accused of using her clients’ food stamps to stock her own kitchen while there was “little food” for participants, according to records from a state investigation. She eventually lost her counseling license in 2012 for this and other unethical behavior. She later pleaded guilty in 2015 to financial assistance fraud for lying about her income and illegally collecting thousands of dollars’ worth of food stamps.

The Community Cafe, which opened in 2017, buys menu items such as hot dogs with rehab clients’ food stamps, according to former participants of the rehab program that operates the restaurant. Credit: Facebook Credit: Facebook.com

At least eight North Carolina agencies have launched investigations into the abuses Reveal exposed at Recovery Connections.

A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, Chris Mackey, declined to say whether the agency would investigate the Warrens’ misuse of food stamps.

The Community Cafe remains open. Last month, it celebrated its one year anniversary with $1 hot dogs.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.