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Rex Hansen and Meleah Spencer
SBJ photo by McKenzie Robinson
Rex Hansen and Meleah Spencer

2020 Economic Impact Awards Charitable Nonprofit: The Kitchen Inc.

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With just $50 and a vision to feed people in need, Sister Lorraine Biebel on Palm Sunday 1983 started what is now The Kitchen Inc. Since those humble beginnings, the focus of the nonprofit has shifted from a soup kitchen to one of the region’s largest providers of housing and social services.

CEO Meleah Spencer says in 2019, The Kitchen served 577 people, 205 of whom were under 18 years old. Those numbers are rising this year, she says, especially among children. Since January, the nonprofit has served 452 people and seen a 7-percentage point rise in the number of kids served.

“There is this preconceived notion that homelessness only affects the old man on the side of the road,” Spencer says. “That is part of who we serve … but there’s not one face to homelessness.”

And Spencer says the nonprofit, which runs on a $3.2 million operating budget, makes a large economic impact on the community with its housing-first philosophy. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates it costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year to support one chronically homeless person. Through its programs to provide people with stable housing, The Kitchen only spends $8,500 per person. Spencer says that provides savings to law enforcement agencies and health care systems, which are often used as resources for unsheltered people.

And the success rate of people who are supported by The Kitchen is high. In 2019, 75% of people who left their programs moved into permanent housing on their own, and another nearly 16% moved into a temporary housing situation.

“Everyone’s story is different of what led them to homelessness and everyone is going to have a different path to get them out of homelessness,” Spencer says.

To better serve people without stable shelter, in 2015 The Kitchen closed its shelter at the Missouri Hotel and launched a $4 million capital campaign to build a new support center and apartments. The O’Reilly Family Campus opened a 14-apartment shelter in November 2018, and this summer the Sam F. and June S. Hamra Family Support Services building opened its doors. She says the nonprofit is entering its second phase of the capital campaign, where they will seek to raise a final $2 million over the next 24 months.

Between its various developments, The Kitchen provides 222 affordable housing units to those in need. But Spencer says more is needed.

“The goal is to get the family to be able to take over their own lease,” she says. “If we really want to help put a stop to ending homelessness, it’s not just a quick fix with an overnight shelter, it’s creating more permanent homes that people can afford.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Spencer says she was thankful for the way The Kitchen’s established housing was designed. Each apartment has its own kitchen and bathroom, allowing the families to shelter in place. The Kitchen’s youth outreach, The Rare Breed, also has provided critical resources during the pandemic. She says case managers educate or have educated youth about social distancing, wearing masks and personal hygiene on top of their services of helping teenagers and young adults secure housing, job skills and education.

Spencer says it’s been a tough year for the nonprofit, with the entire contents of the donation center lost to arson at the end of 2019, and earlier this year a catalytic converter was stolen from a delivery van. But she says volunteers and donors showed up to help, as they always do.

“We are a very giving community,” she says.

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