Skid Row’s Hippie Kitchen Keeps On Feeding

Kait LeonardBy Kait Leonard

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Skid Row’s Hippie Kitchen Keeps On Feeding
Los Angeles Catholic Workers continue to feed Skid Row residents during COVID-19 outbreak. Photos by Kait Leonard.
2020, compounding fears that COVID-19 will eventually rampage through the area with an estimated 2,800 homeless people crammed together on sidewalks and in single-room occupancy hotels within the 50-block neighborhood. The person infected with the virus, and those known to have been in proximity of him, have been quarantined and the city is racing to open emergency shelters. Unfortunately, the streets are still lined with tents and alive with people socializing as they get on with their day. And these people still need to eat. On a recent post-COVID Saturday morning, the usual crowd continues to fill downtown’s Gladys Park. A young woman preaches the gospel while several men shoot hoops—disregarding Mayor Garcetti’s social distancing guideline. Individuals of all ages mill around, talking, laughing, dancing. Community volunteers and residents of Skid Row, Coach Ron and LaRhonda Hartfield offer smiles, jokes, and blessings to everyone entering. “I live here,” says Hartfield pointing to the SRO next to the park. “What are we going to do? We have to trust Jesus to take care of us.” But even in this easy-going atmosphere, some things have changed. More people than usual are sitting side-by-side around park tables and on the ground eating food supplied by the Hospitality Kitchen, known by locals as the Hippie Kitchen, located just across the street. The beans, salad, and bread, once served in everything from paper plates to gallon-sized plastic buckets, are now being handed out in fast-food-style takeout containers. Before the recent crisis, many of these men and women would have eaten their meals in the tranquil garden patio, but that is now closed due to Mayor Garcetti’s directive for eating establishments to move to take-out only.
There are meals to go for those in need.
The Hippie Kitchen, has been serving food in Skid Row for 50 years. Even in 1987, when the Whittier Narrows earthquake destroyed the facility, the kitchen did not stop. The workers simply served sandwiches rather than hot meals, until the completion of the new facility. From the opening of the new Hippie Kitchen in 1990 to March of this year, they have dished-up hot meals and welcomed guests to come in from the street. “They have been a steady source of compassion and care for the residents of Skid Row for decades,” says Dr. Susan Partovi, Medical Director of Homeless Health Care, Los Angeles.

On March 16, 2020 for only the second time in its history, the Hippie Kitchen had to change the way it does business.

Like restaurants from McDonald’s to the exclusive Mastro’s Beverly Hills Steakhouse, the Kitchen is now open for take-out only. The gates to the usually inviting garden dining area have been closed. Now, volunteers stand at the front entrance and pass out food. “I’m just glad we are able to keep the kitchen open… and continue to provide food to folks during this time of emergency,” says Sarah Fuller who has been involved with the organization for approximately ten years.

When thinking of a Skid Row “soup kitchen,” the difference between dining in and grabbing food to-go might not be immediately clear. But the Hippie Kitchen has never been simply a spot to get free food. The volunteers have created a space where guests are shown dignity and kindness, where they can sit and eat, socialize, and sometimes take a quick nap, where they can be accepted as they are. It is run by members of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, a group of people who live communally and dedicate their lives to helping those in need.
The dining patio at the Hippie Kitchen is empty.
The group, one of approximately 240 in the country, takes seriously the Christian scripture that charges the righteous with serving the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those without clothes, the sick, and those in prison.

“Anyone can serve food. If there’s no love behind what we do, we waste the opportunity to love and serve Christ,” Los Angeles Catholic Worker member, Maria Teresa Kamel, says.

During our current pandemic, the Hippie Kitchen is feeding many more guests than usual, according to Kamel. She speculates that this is due in part to the discontinuation of service by smaller organizations and individuals who handed out food on the streets. So far, the large missions such as the Los Angeles Mission, The Midnight Mission, and the Union Rescue Mission are still operating kitchens.

When the need to maintain social distance arose, members of the Catholic Worker community hoped they could stop using volunteers from outside the group until things improve. But given the growing numbers of people to be served, this proved impossible. In fact, they have been forced to add extra prep days to produce the amount of food now needed.

Workers had to “get creative” to find a way to serve more people with a fraction of the staff, says Fuller. Part of that involves accepting pre-screened volunteers to help with food preparation. They still do not accept outside volunteers on serving days, when more people are present.

What does the future hold for the Hippie Kitchen? Right now, no one knows for sure. “There is a chance of anything happening during this unprecedented time, but we hope to remain open,” says Fuller.

What is clear, the group will continue to serve the poor in Skid Row in whatever way makes sense.
Kait Leonard

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July 10, 2020