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“The third place is where people know you by name. It is where your presence is celebrated and your absence is noted. In this place you have something to give and something to receive,” offers Father Paul Schroeder. The third place is crucial to the process of reintegration. It is where people experiencing and transitioning from homelessness can find meaningful human connections, share gifts, and relate to others. Father Paul Schroeder speaks about CUSINA, a unique program that offers Greek cooking classes to people transitioning out of homelessness.
Father Paul Schroeder believes that people experiencing and transitioning out of homelessness move between three places. The first place is where you sleep. This place is often without hope: the streets, a car, an abandoned building, an emergency shelter, or transitional housing. These can be very lonely places. The second place is associated with services. Navigating this system can be isolating and alienating.

“The third place is where people know you by name. It is where your presence is celebrated and your absence is noted. In this place you have something to give and something to receive,” offers Father Paul. The third place is crucial to the process of reintegration. It is where people experiencing and transitioning from homelessness can find meaningful human connections, share gifts, and relate to others.

One such third place is a faith-based program called CUSINA, which is organized by Father Paul and community members from The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. CUSINA is a unique program that offers Greek cooking classes to people transitioning out of homelessness. It works to break down the barriers of alienation between people who are housed and people who are not.

“Relationship is the basis for transformation. It is the beginning of a connection to one’s own humanity, a new understanding of self, of others, of service, of life,” says Father Paul. Father Paul met Erik Sten, Portland’s former City Commissioner, and author of the Living Cities report, “A Human Connection” 2006. The two men formed a friendship and shared how they both wanted to make the world a better place. From this friendship was born the idea of CUSINA. Father Paul shared with Erik the gifts of his congregation. “We have the most amazing resources for Greek cuisine, cooking, and catering talent. We wanted to take all of it and create a table that people can gather around.”

In the fall of 2007, the church began to offer Greek cooking classes to people who were transitioning out of homelessness. People who participated in the classes had a 90 percent housing retention rate over a two-year period. Friendships and partnerships evolved. “People started feeling really good about what they were doing and posed the question, ‘How are we going to keep these relationships going?’”

The solution was to hold a series of regular “reunion dinners” throughout the year. This way participants and volunteers could continue to be involved in each other’s lives. Six-week cooking classes were offered for a period of two years. After this, something remarkable happened. A group of people who had participated in the course felt that they had been given so much and expressed that they wanted to give back. Out of this, the “Sous-Chefs” were formed.

Eight graduates of the program offered orientations, mentored new students, and set up cooking environments as sous-chefs for new students. “This was extraordinary to watch. People took on new leadership roles as they began to realize they had talents they hadn’t previously seen in themselves.”

In the context of the larger faith-based community, individual relationships deepened. Father Paul drove *Alex to cooking classes. Alex walks with a cane and it was easier for someone to pick him up. On the way to CUSINA, Father Paul would ask Alex about his life, simple questions like: “How are you doing? What do you do during the week?”

Alex, who was transitioning out of homelessness, responded that he often sat at home alone and felt very depressed. But, he continued, the CUSINA classes and people gave him something to look forward to. The same night of that particular car ride, Father Paul was circulating the room and Alex said, “I am happy now.”

“I have seen the way that relationships have grown well beyond the borders of our cooking classes,” offers Father Paul. *Steve is an avid biker who formed a friendship with *Bob. Bob has a physical disability but likes to do work on his own bike. “When I was growing up,” says Father Paul, “my father and I used to work together on an old convertible with the idea that someday we would take a road trip together.” Bob and Steve work on Bob's bike every week, and “while Bob may or may not ever ride this bike, it is a reason for them to get together regularly,” shares Father Paul.

Today, Father Paul has taken a leave of absence from the church to begin what he likes to call, “my bold new venture.” He is working to launch a project with an organization called JOIN. JOIN is a Housing First project that helps to transition people who are living on the streets directly to housing. JOIN exists to support the efforts of individuals and families to transition out of homelessness into permanent housing. Their efforts are directed at individuals sleeping outside or in their car in the Portland Metro area. Services are open to anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, specific diagnosis, or identifiable issue. JOIN was founded in 1992 by Rob Justus, and is currently led by Executive Director Marc Jolin, founder of the Homeless Law Project in Portland.

Father Paul is working in collaboration with JOIN to replicate the CUSINA model in other faith communities throughout Portland. It is called The New City Initiative. To guide faith communities through the process, Father Paul asks, “What do you love to do? What do you feel passionate about? What is it that you do well that nobody else does? Take your genius, bring that forward and we can turn that into an opportunity for people who are trying to find a new way of life.”

Father Paul and the New City Initiative just received a grant from the Louisville Institute, a subsidiary of the Lilly Endowment, that will fund a research project in order to determine the outcomes of this model and how it affects people transitioning out of homelessness to a place of empowerment.

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned.

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