TACOMA – Roughly 800 meals a day.
According to Tacoma Rescue Mission Executive Director Duke Paulson, that’s the sizable void that will need to be filled, one way or another.
Later this month, the Rescue Mission will close its kitchen for the first extended period of time since it opened some 22 years ago. It will be a disruption in service created by necessity. After more than two decades of wear and tear, the walk-in freezer and refrigerators are shot at the downtown homeless shelter, Paulson said. There’s simply no way around it. Maintenance and upgrades are long overdue.
In a city and county grappling with a pronounced homelessness crisis, the Rescue Mission – along with the hundreds of shelter beds it provides every night – serves an essential role helping to make sure anyone who needs a meal in our community can get one. For roughly two months starting in May, there will be nowhere on site to cook, prepare or refrigerate food.
Paulson said about 45,000 meals would normally be served during that time, and the Rescue Mission is counting on local restaurants, businesses, church groups and average residents to step up and help. Whether the shelter has a functioning kitchen or not, the people who depend on the meals the Rescue Mission provides simply can’t go hungry, he said.
He’s right, and now it’s time for Tacoma and Pierce County to answer the call.
“We’re a key part of the food delivery system. Anyone – people that are in need can come and eat. It’s open to the public,” Paulson said, noting that the shelter often serves twice as many meals every day as it has beds.
“In 22 years, it’s about six-and-a-half million meals that we’ve served from that kitchen,” he said.
With approximately two weeks before the kitchen closes – to allow for a $700,000 renovation project that will include new appliances and upgrades to the ventilation system – the Rescue Mission is gearing up for the challenge ahead. The shelter has identified at least a dozen local restaurants and businesses that have committed to preparing meals off site, Paulson said, and he’s hoping more will follow.
Paulson also said the Rescue Mission is trying to find local volunteers to help staff meals, which will be more challenging to manage without a functioning kitchen. There’s also a need for people to donate food and money to buy it, Paulson said, since the shelter won’t be able to store perishable items until the work is complete.
“The community is fantastic in supporting us, and I really believe they’ll come through again,” Paulson said, urging anyone who wants to help to reach out to the Rescue Mission directly or online.
There’s little doubt the Rescue Mission will need all the help it can get. Typically, the shelter serves three meals a day, and it’s a pace Paulson said he aims to keep up during the closure. He expects breakfast and lunch to generally consist of items like sandwiches and bagels, while dinners will continue to be hot.
Gwen Stence of Rock the Dock Pub and Grill is one of the local restaurant owners who has agreed to pitch in. On Thursday, she said that “everybody deserves a hot meal,” and, when the Rescue Mission reached out, she responded without hesitation.
Stence noted that the kitchen at her business is small, but she’s committed to assisting the Rescue Mission feed people “any way we can.” With her staff, she said, Rock the Dock is considering making large pots of clam chowder and perhaps sandwiches.
“Obviously, there’s a huge need, and it seems to get bigger every day,” Stence said of Pierce County’s homelessness crisis and the role the Rescue Mission plays keeping people fed and sheltered.
“No one should go hungry,” Stence said. “The fact that their kitchen is going down for that long has got to be momentous for them, and overwhelming. Hopefully we can help in some small way.”
Beyond the simple and essential act of feeding people, Paulson said that meals at the Rescue Mission are often “the first point of contact” that individuals experiencing homeless have with the shelter. That’s one big reason keeping the food coming is so important, he said.
When you can offer someone a home-cooked dinner, it helps build trust and build a relationship that can eventually lead a person off the streets, Paulson said.
“That’s really why we want to keep the meals going, and why we’re putting effort and resources into redoing the kitchen, so we continue to serve people with good food on site for the next 20 years,” Paulson said.
“It shows that we care for people, and that they have value.”