SALT LAKE CITY – Imagine subsisting on a diet of peanut butter sandwiches or turkey wraps for six straight months. While the food itself would be nourishing, not being able to enjoy a hot meal would be tough. That has been the reality for much of Salt Lake City’s homeless population since the pandemic hit.
Before COVID-19, the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City, operated by Catholic Community Services of Utah, served hot meals for lunch and dinner each day to about 150 people. After the pandemic struck, the dining hall never shut down for a moment, but sack meals became the only food provided; this was to protect clients, staff and volunteers from the potential spread of COVID-19, said Randy Chappell, CCS’ Basic Needs director.
The measure worked; there were no outbreaks among those who worked at or frequented the dining hall. Moving from hot meals to sack lunches was costly and labor-intensive, but donors and volunteers stepped up to help, Chappell said. Church groups, including those from some Catholic parishes, and businesses helped out by preparing the meals at their homes or other facilities.
The dining hall also provides the meals for the three homeless resource centers in the Salt Lake area.
“It was just a constant battle of trying to stay ahead,” Chappell said. “Everyone just really jumped in to help out.”
In September, the dining hall transitioned to serving hot meals in takeaway containers. Clients appreciated the hot food, Chappell said, but were faced with the challenge of finding somewhere to eat. This was particularly difficult during winter weather.
Now, as the pandemic wanes and more people are getting vaccinated, the dining hall is preparing to re-open its doors. On April 12, clients will be able to again eat their meals at a table in the dining hall, although there will still be restrictions. Clients will need to wear masks when not dining, as will staff and volunteers. Only 40 people at a time will be served. While family groups will be able to sit together, others will be socially distanced. After each leaves, a volunteer will disinfect the space they occupied.
It’s not ideal, but the new arrangements will give clients at least a short respite from the challenges they face, Chappell said.
“I think having the dining hall back open will be a huge benefit to them and, hopefully, it gets them back into a place where they can relax for 15 or 20 minutes and enjoy the meal that they are served,” he said.
CCS has volunteers lined up for the dining hall’s different shifts, but Chappell said they would appreciate more assistance at dinnertime.
If there are problems, “it’s easier for us to save lunch; if we don’t have volunteers show up, we can pull staff to help serve lunch,” he said. “In the evening, it’s harder because we’re limited on what staff are in the building.”
A St. Vincent de Paul dining hall volunteer sign up is available at ccsutah.org.