In May, Maricopa County rented unused hotel rooms in Phoenix for some of the local homeless population — in an effort to prevent overcrowding and potential spread of COVID-19 in shelters and encampments.
A group of more than 50 checked in initially, under an arrangement paid for using federal coronavirus relief funds. Now with a roof over their head, this growing group of homeless under county care needed something to eat.
Within a week Helpings Café, a subsidiary of UMOM New Day Centers, stepped into the breach. The resulting collaboration between Maricopa County and Helpings Café delivers prepackaged meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Monday through Friday, and brunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays.
“When I told him we could start the next Wednesday, which was May 20, he got really excited,” said chef Dina Altieri, director of culinary enterprises for UMOM.
Lutheran Social Services continues its I-HELP program in collaboration with churches in Avondale, Goodyear and Surprise. The coronavirus has changed how many people use the program — the normal cohort of 14 receiving services and traveling between local churches for shelter was reduced to 10 to comply with CDC guidelines.
However, LSS also has an agreement to use hotel rooms for the other four people using their services. Anyone testing positive for the virus or falling ill and waiting to test can essentially quarantine in these hotel rooms away from the main group.
“Those hotel rooms have made a big difference,” said Connie Phillips President/CEO of LSS.
Meal service in the I-HELP program continues during the pandemic, Ms. Phillips said, with minor alterations.
Several of the churches normally involved in the program are still putting together meals for their guests. If not, others in the LSS volunteer network fill in the gap.
“Some of these churches are still bringing in meals but in some cases they can’t anymore,” Ms. Phillips said. “Volunteers always provide the meals. If the church cannot provide that, other volunteers step in.”
Regional Director Robert Sanders stated LSS have seen a increase for homeless shelter needs in the Phoenix Northwest and Southwest. With the support of the Arizona Department of Housing an 12 additional individuals received hotel vouches. Individuals were also were support with food and transportation.
Helpings Cafe had a larger undertaking, serving as a catering service for the homeless people staying in these hotels, which have grown for an original group of just above 50 to 80 as of June 19.
Before this, Ms. Altieri’s kitchen was focused on serving the 158 people — either families, single women and youth — at the UMOM New Day Center. “What’s nice about this project is it’s a different demographic for us. We’re serving a population within a population, which is interesting,” Altieri said.
Helpings Cafe typically serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday at the center.
Another team at the cafe feeds shelter staff. Ms. Altieri said UMOM has been generous, offering all essential workers hazard pay.
“We do get some walk-ins but since COVID took off in mid-March we went dark for a while,” Ms. Altieri said. “Without customers we just didn’t have anything to do.”
She said with no more sit down meals the dining room looks more like a dance floor now.
Ms. Altieri said freshness is the key to the meals her cafe is catering. The cafe uses an on-site organic herb garden.
She said the goal is to provide this new constituency nutrient-dense food, such as an enchilada pie, barbecue chicken out of a convection oven and green chili stew and rice.
Other menu items include breakfast baked goods and frittatas, and lunch salads and sandwiches.
“We’re not cracking cans,” Ms. Altieri said. “It isn’t what people would think of as shelter food. A lot of people would think about a one-pot scenario. That’s not what we do.”