What began with $50 in 1983 as a humble soup kitchen to serve the homeless has today become an economic engine with annual revenue topping $4 million.
Meleah Spencer, CEO of The Kitchen Inc., had a front-row seat to much of the nonprofit outreach’s growth. Spencer began volunteering in high school while in the 4-H and through the National FFA Organization and met founder Sister Lorraine Biebel while at a fundraiser.
“Little did I know all these years later I’d be trying to fill her shoes. If someone had told me that, I would have laughed in their faces,” Spencer says.
There have been several seismic shifts in philosophy that guided The Kitchen to its present identity. The first was in 1985, when the Missouri Hotel was transformed into a homeless shelter, soup kitchen and, later, a free medical clinic.
From 1997 to 2017, the nonprofit bought and built community housing properties for low-income residents: Franciscan Villa (1987), for elderly and disabled residents; Beacon Village I and II (2013 and 2015), an affordable-housing complex for families and youth; and McClernon Villas (2017), an affordable-housing development for residents age 55 and older with units reserved for homeless veterans.
In 2000, The Kitchen opened the Rare Breed Youth Services Center for people ages 13-24 who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of it.
Perhaps the biggest shift in philosophy occurred in 2014, when the nonprofit adopted the federal Housing First model, which prioritizes quickly connecting people to permanent housing without barriers to entry, such as sobriety or employment. That shift forced closing the Missouri Hotel and launching a $6 million capital campaign for the O’Reilly Family Campus. It opened in 2018 with a 13-unit emergency shelter and, in 2020, the Sam F. and June S. Hamra Family Support Services Building.
“When we were doing the Missouri Hotel, every nook and cranny was filled with 200 people,” Spencer says. “In 2021, we served 800 people.”
In 2023, another 44 units for 55-and-older residents and veterans, Maplewood Villas, will open.
Spencer says every plan to put people on the path to homes and economic stability is individualized by helping them find jobs, getting further education or connecting them with behavioral, mental or medical services. A single chronically homeless person can cost taxpayers as much as $35,578 per year, Spencer says, whereas The Kitchen can house that same person for $10,800 a year.
While housing options have expanded along with services, Spencer doesn’t see the need diminishing any time soon. The waiting list for Maplewood Villas’ 44 units is 174 people long.
Atlanta-based Chicken Salad Chick made its Springfield debut; husband and wife Garrett and Rose Cochran opened Heirloom Candle Bar; and mobile eatery Girldad BBQ LLC was launched.