A Conversation with James Henderson from Recovery Café Lexington

James Henderson is a member of the Recovery Café in Lexington. He grew up in New York City and started riding horses when about ten years old. He graduated from a “really nice private high school” and his father wanted him to go to Princeton for college like he had, but James wanted to race horses.

So James talked to the trainer who had trained a Derby-winning horse that belonged to his grandfather. James recounts how that trainer said he could send James to his farm in Ocala, Florida, and after he worked there for a few years, then we’ll see. James grins as he recounts how “I said, when do I leave?” and the trainer said “I’ve got a truck leaving in a few hours.” James got on it. 

When he got there, it was a culture shock. “I had long hair, none of them had long hair,” he laughs. “But I survived it, and went back to New York. I went to the leading trainer at Belmont, another trainer over at Aqueduct, and eventually I packed up my tack and went to this little track in upstate New York. I won races there, in Miami, Tampa, Pennsylvania. I did really well up there, but the money is terrible. ” 

Eventually, James moved to Lexington with his family for the chance of a lifetime to race a “four million dollar horse.” But almost immediately, that horse fell, James got injured, and that was it for his racing career. He got his trainers license at the Kentucky Horse Park, but money was tight, and his wife was struggling with depression and addiction in the wake of health issues after their last child was born. James started transporting horses between Kentucky and Ohio to make some extra money, and it was after one of those trips that he came back and his kids were in foster care. 

These days, James is still recovering from the aftermath of those difficult years. James and his wife divorced, and eventually, his wife got their kids back from the foster care system. Now she is remarried and teaches recovery classes herself. James isn’t in much contact with her or his kids, which he says hurts but is understandable. “All that takes its toll,” he says, “and I got involved with alcohol. I was basically homeless at that point. I took a lot of trips to jail for missed child support payments and lost whatever jobs I did have every time that happened.”

Eventually James ended up at the Hope Center. And since Recovery Café opened, he’s been coming here too. “They have a free pottery class, and I went nuts,” he says. “I fell in love.” James has a whole box completely full of dozens of pottery figurines he has made, complete with a whole cast from an Alice in Wonderland book at the Café he drew on for inspiration. “This is the only positive thing I had in my life,” he says, showing off each piece. “Now I’m friends with everyone who works here.” 

But James is still struggling with homelessness and is honest about how hard that is. “It’s gotten really challenging,” he says. “I spent last night at the Hope Center, and Community Action Council has put me up in hotel rooms when the weather goes below 30. But the trouble is how day to day it goes.” 

And when talking about the connections between substance use, homelessness, and recovery, James says, “Everything's related. If you're homeless, you’re gonna be depressed. And if I know I’m gonna have to sleep outside in the cold, have a dangerous cold night, I admit it—I’ll go buy a few cold beers. When I’m doing good, I don’t even drink beer. I want to keep doing good.” 

Recently, James has been using his time at the Café working on the long process to apply for disability. “Yesterday, Aaron took pictures of all the paperwork I’ve gotten. These folks help as much as they can. But it’s hard. Honestly, I’d rather work—but I didn’t plan on a catastrophic injury,” he shrugs.

He wants people to know that even when you’re trying to get help, to get out of homelessness, it’s hard when policies work against you. “A lot of the processes to get out the hole are just maddening,” he says. “I love this place here,” he says of the Recovery Café, “but it's still hard to get back on your feet.”  

Recovery Café Lexington is a recovery-focused, community space located in Lexington, Kentucky on Versailles Road and open Wednesday-Saturday. They have a second location, Kate’s Place, currently operating out of AVOL of Kentucky that focuses closely on supportive case management for homelessness and that is open right now on Friday afternoons. They are part of the larger national Recovery Café network and are a Lex End Homelessness (LEH) Continuum of Care member.

Get involved with LEH by joining the Continuum of Care today. Partnership is free and highly encouraged for any organization or person working in the field of human services. You can also contact one of our many partners, such as Recovery Café, to ask about opportunities to get involved. Learn more on our website or by following us on social media @lexendhomelessness.