When the chef at a Florida soup kitchen died suddenly, there were 300 uncooked chickens in the refrigerator. A frantic call went out to Sarah Owen, who was a volunteer at the time. “I came into the field of homeless service in an unconventional way. I kind of wandered into this work,” said Ms. Owen. After hearing that there was no crisis back-up plan, she asked for a few minutes to think. She explained, “I am a person of faith, so I prayed and all I heard was ‘go cook the food.’”
The next thing she knew, she broke into the soup kitchen and set off security alarms at 3:00 a.m. in order to cook meals. When she got there, she had the uncut whole chickens staring her down. She thought to herself, “I don’t even know how to cut up a chicken.” She recalled her grandmother cooking, and started to cut the pieces that she recognized. She described, “The alarm still blaring and people coming into the kitchen asking me what are you doing here?” As people arrived, Ms. Owen explained that a person beloved to them died. Her hands slippery with chicken, she consoled them. Then she had no choice but to go back to cutting up chickens. She continued, “What happened is that I arrived at 3:00 a.m. and I never left. We had to make lunch the same day. . . . I told myself I would stay for a little while, but each day something new would unfold and then in 6 years, we merged with other organizations.”
Ms. Owen is now the executive director of Community Cooperative Ministries Incorporated, in Fort Myers, Florida. She explained why she and other community members decided to live on the street for 2 days. After she first left corporate communications, everything centered on interacting with people who were experiencing homelessness. As the agency and her responsibilities grew, she felt she moved further away from connecting with people. She wanted to reconnect, “If I am suggesting innovations, I cannot lose touch with the voices of people who are living on the streets.”
It was eye opening to her how many programs did not hit the mark. She had been a staunch supporter of “no dollar handouts,” and completely changed her thinking on that count. She also realized that the rule preventing people from taking food out of the soup kitchen made no sense. “I had just walked 14 miles to get food and by the time I walked the lengthy distance back to our camp, I was really hungry,” said Ms. Owen. That rule since changed.
Community Cooperative Ministries Incorporated grew from a budget of $125,000 to $3 million today. Most importantly, the organization made progressive changes to improve their services. Some of these changes directly resulted from the experiences of Ms. Owen.
She wanted to solve the problem of homelessness at a systemic and social justice level. Living on the street really brought issues of daily living front and center. What does it mean if there is no bathroom or place to do laundry? What does it mean to go into Walmart and get dirty looks?
Community Cooperative Ministries Incorporated converted all of its soup kitchens to community kitchens that are now open all day long. The kitchens include kiosks for computers. The agency changed all food pantries to food markets, which allows people to make choices regarding what they would like to eat. A community café has coffee, bagels, phone access, media tools, and life coaching. Plans are in place to open a second café in another location.
In the past, hours and choices were limited and inflexible and people had to walk long distances to access different services. Ms. Owen believes that offering more flexible hours through the new plan helps to increase dignity. “It diminishes your dignity to walk long distances to a community kitchen, only to find it closed,” she says.
Immediately following her 2 days experiencing homelessness, Ms. Owen called a board meeting to put changes into effect as quickly as possible. She and her team used what they learned to make a powerful impact starting on the Monday morning immediately following the event. Those changes are still in effect today.
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