Nonprofits serving Detroit's homeless transition to carry-out dining, but plead for help as pandemic sweeps state

DETROIT  As the coronavirus situation continues to evolve in Michigan, soup kitchens and food pantries are facing lots of uncertainty about what will come next. 

However, one thing is certain: their guests need them, and many say they will continue to serve food to those in need for as long as possible. 

Although some soup kitchens have had to close down, others such as the Pope Francis Center, St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen and St. Christine’s Christian Services remain open, but with new sanitation procedures and processes for serving their guests meals. 

“This week, given the new concerns, we are doing carry-out meals only, which we normally don’t do,” said Larmender Davis, executive director of St. Leo’s, near Grand River and Warren in Detroit. “We are trying our best to make sure that people who depend on us for maybe their only meal of the day are at least able to have one hot meal.”

A worker at the Pope Francis Center tents continues to help serve those in need while taking the proper sanitary and social-distancing precautions. (Photo by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

The carryout model is also the new norm for St. Christine’s on the city’s west side and All Saints Soup Kitchen in southwest Detroit. The Pope Francis Center, located next door to SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Parish downtown, is taking similar precautions but has moved its operation entirely outdoors, setting up tents and stations serving hot coffee, juice and milk, in addition to hot meals.

Executive director Fr. Tim McCabe, SJ, said the center also has set up sanitation stations and portable toilets, but has had to shut down other services including showers, laundry and rotating free clinics such as dentistry and legal services. 

As businesses, nonprofits and families across the state practice “social distancing,” charities and programs offered to the poor have had to cut back on some services in an effort to keep clients, staff and volunteers safe, Fr. McCabe said.

However, some uncertainty remains. For one, the changing weather means the outdoor services provided by the Pope Francis Center could become more complicated. A longer-term, and more pressing concern is that donations could dry up as need rises if economic stability is affected by the length of the quarantine.

“The issue really is that, as the economic downturn happens, we are going to see fewer donations, and we will see a higher number of people experiencing homelessness as people lose their jobs, lose their income and then lose their homes,” Fr. McCabe said. “We are bracing for numbers to go up, and we have to find a way for people to get their basic human needs met.”

Fr. McCabe said the Pope Francis Center already has seen an increase in the number of guests in the last 10 days, especially as families with children have found themselves in need of meals that were once provided at schools.

Meanwhile, St. Leo’s is seeing fewer guests, and Davis is concerned this might be because people are unaware the soup kitchen is still open, just operating differently. 

Pope Francis Center already has seen an increase in the number of guests in the last 10 days, especially as families with children have found themselves in need of meals that were once provided at schools. (Photo by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)



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“I am really concerned because some of our guests are homeless, some are living in homes without electricity and water and without the means to go out and purchase food,” Davis said. “I am very, very concerned because I know a lot of soup kitchens have already closed down, and we are one of the few that are trying to weather the storm.”

Even if some guests are able to acquire food elsewhere, they might not have the means to cook or access to water, Davis said. 

But as much as St. Leo’s guests need to eat, the soup kitchen also has a responsibility to keep guests, staff and volunteers safe.

“I think this pandemic is just highlighting the needs and our gaps in services and resources,” Davis said. “These needs are every day, and you don’t really hear about them. We are doing the best we can during this pandemic, but when it’s not a pandemic, we still need donations and volunteers and things to keep the soup kitchen running because there is a population out there that still exists that does not have access to healthy, hot meals.”

Nevertheless, Fr. McCabe said he is inspired by the resilience of the people who frequent the center, and their optimism despite the gloomy situation. 

“The thing that I am overly amazed at with the folks that are homeless is how resilient they are and how willing they are to accept whatever restrictions we put out there,” Fr. McCabe said. “It’s cold out in the morning, and they have to just stand out there in the cold and eat their meals, and they are just so accommodating and so grateful.”

Soup kitchens and food pantries open during coronavirus quarantine

These centers are working in compliance with the regulations placed by both the state of Michigan and the Archdiocese of Detroit. Meals and food boxes are carry-out only.