Meeting the needs of the hungry: a Cleveland community kitchen at work
Nestled down a ramp outside of New Life Bible Church on South Ocoee Street is a door that leads to the New Life Community Kitchen. The kitchen buzzes with life during lunchtime every weekday, a place where lower income and homeless people find sanctuary, peace and a meal.
The kitchen, started in 1988, serves as a branch of Norvel Hayes Ministries and New Life Bible Church.
Kitchen manager Karen Cross sits near the entryway, a sign reading “His Mercies are New Every Morning” on her desk, willing to be interrupted to help the needs of those who enter—a number that totals around 60 a day.
Asked for everything from bobby pins to sleeping bags, she oversees the hot meals provided every Monday through Friday for those who are hungry. The Chattanooga Area Food Bank and donations from the community are the main supplier of food for the kitchen.
According to the food bank’s website, 20 counties are served through the organization. The food bank seeks to help the “nonprofit partners fulfill the mission…to take care of those most in need,” the website says. Roughly 80 percent of the food sourced through the food bank is distributed through their partner agencies. New Life Community Kitchen is one such partner.
Cross said she sees a mix of contexts for the people who eat at the ministry’s outreach—folks embroiled in both long-term and transitional homelessness. Often getting new walk-ins, Cross has noticed more and more that the permanent homeless have outnumbered those in transition. The kitchen also tends to get more traffic at the end of the month when food stamp supplies start to dwindle.
“When I first came here, I was thinking it would be young people just doing drugs, but there are a lot of middle-aged people that are homeless,” Cross said. “It’s just a matter of three or four pay days missing or if they become disabled and they can’t work…and can’t get monies in quick enough and they wind up in the shelter.”
They try to target and help those in transitional homelessness as quickly as possible.
“After they deal with homelessness for a period of time, their mind and their thinking starts changing. They have to adapt. They start thinking defeat and think, ‘We’re just gonna make it work,’” Cross said.
In addition to feeding those in this situation, the kitchen also provides resources to get them back in the workforce and find housing. One of the main organizations to which they direct people is The Caring Place. The Caring Place is beneficial for those who are a part of the kitchen because the organization is composed of trained social workers.
According to The Caring Place’s website, services offered include resource referral, case management, building resources for long-term change and therapeutic intervention.
Their vision statement states they exist to have a “community [where] every person has access to the resources they need to thrive, and where barriers are removed through active collaboration across agency, church, government, and economic sectors to see an end to poverty in our community.”
Cross keeps a thick binder in her desk to other resources as well, such as drug rehabilitation, food stamp services and more.
“There’s too much need,” she said. When the need outweighs what the kitchen offers, she relies on other organizations and services in the community.
The job can oftentimes get overwhelming. When it does, Cross says the testimonials from the ministry keep her going.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t know what I would’ve done had it not been for this soup kitchen,’” she said. “We have a guy now who has really come off of his meth and is doing just wonderful. He’s closing in on his 100th day drug free.”
Cross’ face lights up when speaking of him. “He calls me Pastor Karen and texts me every morning. He’ll tell me what Scripture he’s reading that day,” she said.
Cross has witnessed healing and transformation in the lives of those who are fed and clothed because of the kitchen, and the beginning of her involvement in the ministry is one that comes from healing as well.
Driving by the church one day, she saw a homeless lady walking. She said she had an inclination inside of her that the needy were being helped there. She talked to her friend who was an evangelist with the church, and she ended up becoming a Bible teacher at New Life and volunteered with the kitchen.
Later in 2013, Cross developed Stage 4 colon cancer and it metastasized to her liver. She ended up being miraculously healed and is proud to be cancer-free to this day.
When she recovered, she developed a longing to do something. After seeing an article in the newspaper about the kitchen, she was reminded of her time there and got back into the swing of volunteering. Close to that time, the previous manager was leaving and asked Cross to take over.
“I said, ‘Well sure, I’ll give it a try,’” she said.
With three days of training in management, she started to oversee the administrative duties the day after Christmas in 2016.
“I have learned to relax in a lot of things,” Cross said.
When she first came, she wanted to change the culture and for everybody to be drug-free, employed, and housed. “But you can’t do that overnight. It takes a lot of work…it’s amazing what these people have gone through,” Cross said.
She’s seen some come daily from abandoned buildings, the streets—even the woods.
“I tell them this place is to be a sanctuary; you’ve got enough drama out there on the streets,” Cross said.