The smell of broth and cooked meats pour out of the kitchen at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood.
Following the aroma, volunteers with Feed Louisville, a local mutual aid organization that provides meals and supplies to Louisville’s homeless population, move in and out of the cookery — hands full.
In the corner of the kitchen, Rhona Kamar, co-founder of Feed Louisville and chef of 27 years, stands with the refrigerator door open giving marching orders to a couple of volunteers helping her prepare meals for tonight’s drop-off.
It’s roughly 4 p.m. and the winter day has been kind to the city thus far — 52-degrees in mid-January after several 30-degree nights and the occasional snow dusting.
This should be a good night for outreach.
For almost a year, Kamar and fellow Feed Louisville co-founder Donny Greene have been serving Louisville’s homeless population amid a global pandemic after many things like day shelters and soup kitchens were shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Since the organization was born in March, Feed Louisville has served roughly 7,000 meals per month to the homeless and the food insecure.
Everything they cook is made with donated ingredients, as the organization boasts 15 restaurant partners, including Big Momma’s Soul Food Kitchen, Cake Flour Bakery, Noche Mexican BBQ, ROC restaurant, V-Grits and more, some of whom cook for them five days a week — and two professional chefs who work the church kitchen daily. Additionally, Feed Louisville recently became partners with Dare to Care food bank, which will only deepen its resources and reach as the pandemic continues.
“We have proven that the infrastructure exists in this community to feed those that need food right now,” Kamar, who is also co-owner of Ramsi’s Cafe On The World, said. “If we have a lot of people doing a little bit it all adds up.”
But what makes Feed Louisville unique in its effort, is that feeding the homeless and houseless is only the first layer of its services, said Greene, who leads the Feed Louisville outreach team.
It’s so much more.
Beyond food, Feed Louisville’s outreach aims to restore basic human needs to a community that is continually “de-humanized,” Greene says, by filling hands with supplies, mouths with food and hearts with compassion and friendship.
Unlike other organizations, Greene said this is a five to six days per week effort — not just for a special occasion or a holiday — days which usually begin at 2 p.m. and end around 2 a.m.
“We’re not out here just feeding folks,” Greene said. “We’re trying to determine what people’s needs are and are filling them the best way we can. Whether that’s someone to talk to about a situation or problem, whether that’s food or water, whether that’s clean clothes.
“Bottom line, we’re out here making connections with folks.”
Outside of the kitchen, Layne Wegenast, 23, and Greene’s daughter Brynne, 20, pack Layne’s Toyota RAV4 with unopened tents and sleeping bags, flashlights, bags of pet food, feminine products, hand warmers and more.
Each night, these two, alongside a team of 10-15 other people, join Greene at homeless camps and other locations across the city — all with different skills and reasons for why they assist.
For Layne, who nannies from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then reports to the church after, her outreach started with occasional ride-alongs with Greene a few nights a week. Since June, that’s become five nights a week.
But one mantra is true for everyone in the group: “No one is gonna save us,” Greene always says in reference to their community. “Community saves community.”
So they start up their trucks and cars, loaded window-to-window with supplies, and follow Greene’s Mercedes 3500 SHC cargo van out of the church parking lot and to their first stop of the evening: 1217 W. Main St.
The alley at 1217 W. Main St. in downtown Louisville is dim underneath skies which now approach evening as Greene and his crew arrive on a scene where graffiti is sprayed across the walls and weeds split through the cracks in the concrete.
But as the alley opens up to a courtyard full of scrapped machine parts and cinder blocks, the sun shines its face on a used, repainted TARC bus.
“Has potential, right?” Greene says, smiling.
Before he makes his rounds, he had to lay his eyes on this bus, which had been recently donated to Feed Louisville. He plans on transforming it into a mobile wash center of sorts that will hold two showers and a couple of washers and dryers for the houseless population to use.
And when the pandemic ends, when they can safely rotate more than two people in at a time, it will be used as a “warming station” as well.
Since the pandemic began, those who live on the streets or in camps have told Greene they’ve had a tough time finding places to use the restroom and to clean themselves and their clothes.
This is because under pandemic restrictions, no public bathrooms or restaurants have been readily available for them to use.
“Being able to clean is not only an issue of health but an issue of dignity,” said Camila Jasis-Wallace, a former EMT who now works as a street medic with Feed Louisville.
And finding a place to do so as a homeless person every day “is a problem that has to be solved,” Greene added. “Where are you gonna go? How are you gonna do it? Do you have the supplies to do it?”
So, he’s been looking to address that need and he thinks he’s found it. The plan is to get this bus up and running with all amenities ready by May, and then possibly expand to two or three more buses. But that depends on what funding and grants they can secure to cover things from maintenance to gas.
Securing those funds and addressing those needs are personal to Greene, a Louisville native who said he had friends growing up that were houseless and for years watched people fail to “make it.”
“Houseless people in our society are like the ‘untouchables,’” Greene said. “Something you shun and ignore because there’s shame around it. That stigma has to be removed.”
So roughly six years ago, Greene began volunteering his time weekly, loading a forest-green ‘96 Buick with supplies fueled by his own volition and money. Weekly outreach ultimately became a daily mission when Kamar, founder of Prana Food + Bev, ran into Greene while operating her company out of the church kitchen in March. From there, Feed Louisville was born.
After Greene and his team wrap up at Main Street, they head to Mercer camp — Louisville’s most served homeless camp. Mud spit up from underneath the tires of Greene’s cargo van as the caravan drove over uncharted dirt roads underneath I-64 that lead to the camp.
The road eventually breaks away from the interstate overpass turning toward an open field lined with makeshift tents and shelters held up by mattresses and spare wood.
The outreach team gets out of their vehicles and greets familiar faces. They hand out meals — a spaghetti option or biscuits and gravy — and thankful hands reach for tents and sleeping bags, while some grab for pet food for the dogs running in circles around their feet.
The camp is fairly quiet except for the exchange of greetings, check-ins and thank you’s.
Out of the back of Greene’s van, EMT Jasis-Wallace is ace-wrapping a woman’s foot, while Greene hands out clothes and asks the man receiving them “How are you doing?”
It’s not small talk. It’s a genuine exchange and the two talk about it for a while.
“We’re building lifelong relationships with people that don’t typically have access to relationships with ‘housed’ folks,” Greene said. “That human connection is far more important than almost anything else we use.”
This is the team’s first outreach stop of the night — a night that would go on until 3 a.m., serve 10 other camps and six more locations across the city where two or three people might congregate at a time.
But before the crew moves to the other side of the Mercer camp, one more man stops at Greene’s van juggling a tent and a bag of food and simply says “I appreciate you.”
Then he walks away — toward his plot — hands full.
Contact Andre Toran at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @andretoran.
How to help
Here’s how to help nonprofit Feed Louisville:
- Donate to the Douglass Boulevard Christian Church via PayPal at paypal.com/paypalme/DBCC40205.
- For Venmo: @feed-louisville
- Mail a check to Feed Louisville, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, 2005 Douglass Blvd., Louisville, KY 40204. (Please note if you would like to receive a tax donation form.)
- To donate food ingredients or other supplies, contact [email protected]
- Purchase produce from Feed Louisville farm partners, listed on its website. Money goes to the farmers and the food is used for the program’s meals.
For more information, visit feedlouisville.org.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Full hands, full hearts: Feed Louisville nourishes the homeless with more than just food