CHAMPAIGN – About 30 people lined up for opening day at the new Daily Bread Soup Kitchen a year ago, then strictly a sandwiches-and-chips operation.
Today that number has quadrupled, with an average of 125 people showing up five days a week for a hot meal, conversation and, sometimes, a welcoming hug.
Forced out on its own by the Catholic Worker House in August 2009, the soup kitchen moved down the street and reopened a month later at New Covenant Fellowship, 124 W. White St., C. It's now busier than ever providing lunch – and more – to the homeless and hungry of Champaign-Urbana.
Business climbed steadily during its first year, peaking this summer at 250 people a day – including lots of moms with children who weren't getting subsidized lunches while school was out.
And on Oct. 3, Daily Bread started serving hot meals for the first time, after installing a hand-washing sink and other improvements to meet public health requirements for commercial kitchens. A new walk-in refrigerator and walk-in freezer are stocked to the ceiling with cheese, butter, produce, milk, yogurt, sausage, tubs of pasta salad, pizza and trays of cooked food from Newman Hall on the University of Illinois campus.
The soup kitchen also gives out more than $1,000 in financial assistance every month, usually to pay for bus passes, birth certificates and state IDs. Plans are under way to bring in representatives from social services agencies on a regular basis to provide more convenient services for its guests. And the board is examining ways to expand the soup kitchen to seven days a week.
"Our numbers just keep going up," longtime volunteer Ellen Harms said.
In some ways, the move has been a blessing, volunteers say.
The Catholic Worker House board closed the soup kitchen last year because it wanted a more secure environment for the homeless families who live in the house. The dining room could only seat 10 at a time, and the line could sometimes get "unruly," Harms said.
The fellowship hall at New Covenant can seat 80 at once, so there's room for people to linger, exchange job tips or, once in awhile, give each other tough advice.
"We have some people who come and sit there for the whole hour and a half," Harms said. "There's a sense of community."
The soup kitchen serves food from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, but doors open by 10:30 for those who want to enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry.
Dan Cahill, 62, who eats there several times a week, said the new location is roomier and more comfortable.
"You can come in and relax from whatever's going on with you the rest of the day," he said.
Cahill sat Tuesday with Misty Schable, 38, who started visiting the soup kitchen about six months ago.
"It's a nice place to come to. People take care of each other," she said, pausing frequently to greet other guests. "There's always a nice welcome when you walk in."
Besides having more room, the new location has proved ideal – close to downtown Champaign, on major bus routes, with plenty of room – and New Covenant has been a good fit, said board President Ellen McDowell.
But it isn't available on weekends because of church services, and McDowell would love Daily Bread to be a truly daily operation.
The board is scouting for a new long-term home, but so far hasn't found the right spot. It has considered some city-owned lots in the Beardsley Park area, acquired as part of long-term drainage improvements that are still a decade down the road.
But those properties aren't zoned for commercial use and may not fit the long-term neighborhood plan, said Craig Rost, deputy city manager for development. And the city still isn't sure which lots may be needed for the drainage work, said Kerri Spear, neighborhood programs manager.
There's also the question of what neighbors would think.
"It comes back to that 'not in my backyard' thing," McDowell said. "And business people don't want a soup kitchen next door to a restaurant."
Rost said Daily Bread provides an important service for the community, and the city will continue to work with the board on a long-term solution.
Most available sites are too far from the central city, or would take too much money to build or renovate. The soup kitchen survives on donations and small grants. And the group doesn't want to go back to a house, Harms said.
"It's a big dilemma," McDowell said. "We're comfortable where we are. The numbers are high. New Covenant's been very good to us," and the soup kitchen dovetails with the congregation's mission of social justice, she said.
Daily Bread is not charged rent but pays for its share of utilities and janitorial costs. Several church members also volunteer at the soup kitchen.
"We would love to have a partnership with Daily Bread for a long time," said the Rev. Jim Linder, one of several pastors for the congregation. "We have such a huge building, and we'd like to see it being used for good instead of just sitting here."
In lieu of a new place, McDowell's dream is to set up a mobile food pantry that could visit neighborhoods on the weekends, serving soup, sandwiches and coffee.
UI students and members of Sinai Temple who volunteered on weekends at the Catholic Worker House could staff it, she said.
She just needs a truck.
"It could say, 'Have bread, will travel,'" she said.
McDowell is also working with Linder to set aside space during soup kitchen hours where representatives from various agencies could come in once a week or once a month to answer questions and provide information – perhaps Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, Prairie Center, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District or Social Security.
"We want to centralize services for our guests, so they don't have to walk the length and breadth of our city," McDowell said. "We do not want to be an agency. We do not want to compete with agencies. We want to cooperate with agencies."
It's a challenge for people who have to walk or rely on buses for transportation to take care of the simplest task, McDowell said. To get a state ID, for instance, they might have to visit the Social Security office in west Champaign, get a copy of a birth certificate at the county Brookens Administrative Center in Urbana, and go to the driver's license station in northwest Champaign.
While bus service in Champaign-Urbana is "fantastic," Cahill said, "it can be real difficult to get more than a couple of things done" in a day.
Part of Daily Bread's mission, in the Catholic Worker tradition, is to "uplift" the poor, who are often so beaten down by mistakes, frustrations, disappointments and "bungled opportunities" that apathy sets in, McDowell said.
"People say, 'Why don't they do something for themselves? Why don't they pull themselves up by their bootstraps?' It's been so long since anything has worked for them," she said. "All of us would be the same if we had the experience these people have.
"It doesn't mean we're idealizing the poor. We know that there are problems. But we think everybody should have a chance. And we want to make life a little easier for them to do what they would like to do to increase quality of life."
Cahill, who said he lives on unemployment and part-time work as a general laborer, visits the soup kitchen to "make the few bucks I have stretch farther." Without it, his expenses would be tight.
"I'd get by. This just makes things a little easier," he said.
Schable said she is working on an independent study program for graduate school and doesn't have a job, so it's hard to make ends meet. The soup kitchen is a "necessity."
"I'm grateful for the people who volunteer their time, I'm grateful for the donations they receive, I'm grateful for the people who care," she said.