SALT LAKE CITY – Being able to eat meals indoors, protected from the elements, seated on a chair at a table would seem to be very little to ask of life, but during the pandemic it became an almost-forgotten luxury for many of the city’s homeless people. Like most institutions and businesses, the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City closed last March. Catholic Community Services, which runs the dining hall, immediately switched to offering sack lunches and later hot food from a window, but the dining area remained shuttered for almost 13 months. That changed on April 12, as the dining hall’s doors opened again.
“It’s an exciting day,” said CCS Basic Needs Director Randy Chappell as he welcomed patrons back into the building.
One patron, John, who declined to give his last name and describes himself as “houseless,” clapped when he arrived, expecting only to be able to get a sandwich from the takeout window.
“When I saw all the workers back there at the food line, I applauded them; they’re deserving of applause,” John said. It has been a long pandemic year, he added. “They told me a year ago, ‘It will open in two weeks.’”
Other patrons also appreciated being able to enjoy their meals in the dining room. Jose Medina-Ramos was eating lunch with his friend Viktor Aguilar that day. The two men had been receiving food from the takeout window throughout the pandemic. The months while the dining hall has been closed have been tough, they said.
“Sometimes it’s raining outside or snowing,” Medina-Ramos said. “It was very difficult to keep the food from getting ruined.”
He said he felt safe from contracting COVID-19 with all the measures CCS is employing at the dining hall.
“I’m glad it’s opened again,” said the only woman eating lunch at the dining hall at noon that first day. She declined to give her name, but added, “I appreciate it in every which way, and I hope that it continues to stay open.”
Bill Yazzie, a veteran who lives nearby in Freedom Landing veteran housing, was able to take the food back to his apartment while the dining hall was closed, but said he appreciates it being open again. “It’s pretty cool.”
The dining hall, which normally serves 150 to 200 homeless people each day, reopened with social distancing measures in place and a capacity of 40 people. Upon entry, patrons use hand sanitizer and wear masks except when they are seated to eat. Staff and volunteers wear masks at all times. Places are disinfected by volunteers as patrons finish and leave.
CCS needs more volunteers to help in the dining room, particular during the dinner hour of 5 to 6 p.m. Those who are interested may sign up at ccsutah.org.