Executive Director Rick Birkel, Ph.D. describes the agency’s newly expanded role and vision for the dining hall as a social service program.
What is the St. Francis Dining Hall, and why is it a significant part of our local community?
The St. Francis Dining Hall has been offering hundreds of meals a day to our unhoused neighbors for the past forty years. The dining hall has long operated under the concept of radical hospitality. As such, the St. Francis community has put extraordinary effort and emphasis on making people feel welcomed and valued.
How have the local community, businesses, parish volunteers, and others been supportive of the dining hall, and what is the vision for those partnerships going forward?
St. Francis Dining Hall is a wonderful example of collaboration across sectors and across communities.St. Francis Parish has been integral to the success of the St. Francis Dining Hall, providing both vision and volunteers to the direction of the work. Local businesses have supported the dining hall through donations of food and goods, as well as volunteers. The Buckman neighborhood itself often has community members participating in meal preparation and distribution. Catholic Charities will continue to support and nourish these relationships to leverage the strengths of diverse stakeholders in serving some of our community’s most vulnerable members.
Why has Catholic Charities been called to step in to help the dining hall?
St. Francis Dining Hall has long been an important provider within the unhoused community. Their approach of radical hospitality based in the inherent dignity of every human has been a key component in the longevity of the ministry. St. Francis Dining Hall has specialized in hot meals for unhoused neighbors since the program started in the 70’s. Catholic Charities was asked to step in to support the Dining Hall to expand programming beyond local food distribution.
By transitioning the dining hall from a food-specific ministry to a social service program, Catholic Charities can bring robust wrap-around services to unhoused people in the form of housing programs, mental health programs, health navigation and enrollment, and other services essential to the wellbeing of our neighbors.
Will the parish continue to serve the local community?
Yes, absolutely. Both the pastor, Fr. George Kuforiji, and the Archbishop have been very clear that they wish for the St. Francis Parish to retain its historical commitment to social justice and outreach to the unhoused. Catholic Charities is working closely with Fr. George and the parish’s new Deacon, Greg Pashley, to assure there is open communication with the parish members about volunteer and leadership opportunities in the growing ministry. We will also be working with local community members to determine what other services and supports are needed and how best to assure the ministry remains a good neighbor.
What is Catholic Charities doing currently at the dining hall and what is the long-term vision?
Catholic Charities is currently engaged in an assessment phase at the dining hall to inform the build-out of active programming. We have a nutrition coordinator, chef, and volunteers who provide two meals a day that have been specially prepared to meet the unique nutritional needs of people living on the street. The Catholic Charities Housing Transitions Team continues to engage in street outreach with people camping in the area and we are working closely with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Portland Police Department, the Archdiocese, volunteers, parishioners, community members and unhoused service consumers to ensure the development of programming that is aligned with best practices and community vision.
At the same time we conduct our assessment towards developing new service models for the site, St. Francis Dining Hall is also now serving as an important food preparation and distribution center for the larger system of homeless services in the city, particularly on the east side of Portland. In that role, for example, are working with the Joint Office to assure food distribution to sanctioned camps, and with Transition Projects to provide meals for a growing number of unhoused veterans who are residing in motels. With these additional responsibilities, the dining hall will soon prepare and distribute thousands of meals each week to unhoused individuals throughout the Portland metro region.
Feeling inspired? Join our food distribution efforts by volunteering your time to support our food pantry or food storage teams.