For 70 years, Portland’s Blanchet House of Hospitality has had a mission to help people. Founded by a group of University of Portland alumni, the nonprofit serves free, hot meals at its downtown Founders Cafe to anyone who would like one — no questions asked, no barrier for entry.
But for the two years, those meals were all been boxed up to-go. The pandemic forced the nonprofit to shutter its doors, but not to stop service. The last meal served indoors was dinner on March 16, 2020. Without missing a beat, Blanchet House transitioned to packaging its meals and had breakfast service ready the very next morning.
Then on Monday, May 2, the Founders Cafe reopened to in-person dining. OPB was there to hear from staff, volunteers and guests.
Josi Whitney, volunteer
I started on St. Patrick’s Day, everything was shut down, [and I was] all dressed up, nowhere to go. I came out here from Vancouver, and they were the only place open to do things. In one hour at lunch, we served over 1,300 lunches. It was amazing and so I’ve been coming out ever since. I actually came out for six days a week when everything was shut down, but I’ve been doing lunches on Mondays ever since, now for a couple of years. So yeah, this is my first indoor [service], it’s so exciting.
Brian Cooper, peer support volunteer
I currently work for Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon. We’re volunteering down here today as Peer Support. Help things go smooth with the reopening of Blanchet House for indoor service. I do have lived experience of being homeless in my lifetime. I got a Street Roots book that told me that they served food at Blanchet House [and] I came here and I was quite surprised by the level of service that I was getting when I was here. It didn’t feel like any other place that I’ve eaten to get food. It wasn’t like a sack lunch out of a window or a brown paper bag out of the back of somebody’s car. It was a service where I felt like I could come in and eat at a restaurant. It was just a really overwhelming, good experience that I cherish. It’s that dignity part that people get — that experience [of] a nice hot, warm meal inside where nobody’s making me hurry up and leave. I can eat and when I’m done, I leave and I can come back. It’s probably the best experience that a lot of some people are gonna have during that day and I think that’s really important.
Melody Rose, guest
It actually makes me a little tentative, like it throws up a trust issue. Not because I’m not trusting of the people, but it’s kind of like, “Is this real?” Because this is not how you would treat “those people” that we are, you know. And to be treated that way is nice and inclusive and it bridges the gap between the cultural differences between being in a tent and being a tenant.
Shannon Chasteen, kitchen operations director and executive chef
The challenges are not really knowing what ingredients you’re always going to have on hand. We just stopped getting really heavy donations lately of tomatoes and cabbage, and sometimes it’s like a whole truckload of broccoli. Another thing that we often have to put into the equation is the preppers and the servers and everybody that makes this happen can fluctuate almost as much as the ingredients can. It’s all on having the residents available, having volunteers who are interested in spending time here. That’s a challenge that can happen every day — whether you’ve got those hands — but then not skipping a beat, we still open at the same time every day three meals a day, six days a week. So, it’s just a blessing when it all works out like this, and it does most all the time.
Brendan Shields, resident
You volunteer for three months down in the kitchen serving the homeless and then, after three months, you can look for a job. And then you have four months to save up money and help you transition out. There’s other resources available as well. There’s been a lot of changes like with the extra peer support people that are working with the community, it seems like super positive. It takes a community to heal the community and it’s saved me more than once.