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Dennis Kelsch's good news: No one need go hungry in Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Kelsch has good news. Really good news. And it’s not the first time he’s delivered it, nor will it be the last:

“No one walking the streets of Salt Lake City need go hungry.”

As director of basic needs services for Catholic Community Services of Utah, Kelsch oversees the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, Salt Lake City’s most prominent soup kitchen.

They serve a lot more than soup at St. Vincent’s. Every day, just off the corner of 200 South and 400 West, there’s a hearty lunch at 11:30 and a hearty dinner at 5. Everyone is welcome. No one is turned away. And you can’t beat the price. There’s no charge. Ever.

“If you go hungry in this city, there’s something wrong,” says Kelsch, who points out that St. Vincent’s isn’t the only place offering a free lunch: “The Cathedral of the Madeleine has sandwiches every day, there’s the Rescue Mission, you can walk in there and get a meal twice a day, there are other food pantries. There’s plenty of food in this city.”

His recommendation on how to deal with panhandlers on the streets asking for money for food?

Don’t give it to them.

“Many of those people use the money for alcohol and drugs, and it’s a pretty substantial income they get too,” he says. “Don’t give the people with the signs the money. Give it to the providers who do constructive things for the homeless.”

Kelsch, 71, knows whereof he speaks. He has spent a lifetime serving his fellow man, first as a priest in the Catholic Church and now, in his second career, as a CCS executive. Fifteen years ago he came to downtown Salt Lake to work as a supervisor at the homeless shelter, then called Traveler’s Aid and now The Road Home. After a year and a half he crossed the street to work for Catholic Community Services, where he’s served in a variety of positions. In July 2011, he succeeded Jose Lazaro to manage the St. Vincent de Paul Resource Center. His duties, besides the kitchen, include supervising the neighboring Weigand Homeless Resource Center, the facility that provides warmth, showers, health care and other daytime services for the homeless and disenfranchised.

On a recent brisk January morning, as the kitchen staff prepared for another full dining room at lunch, Kelsch sat down with the Deseret News to talk about the services he oversees and his views on the homeless situation in Salt Lake City.

DN: Thank you for your time and the chance to talk about what’s being done for the homeless. How many people eat at St. Vincent’s on a daily basis?

DK: We’re serving about 500 people each meal, so about a thousand people a day. What percentage that is of the homeless community as a whole we don’t really know. It’s a very transient group. We see new faces all the time. They come and they go. Some people joke that we’ve got such good homeless services that people are coming from other places. But we don’t ask where they come from or why they’re here. We just give them a meal.

DN: Since you arrived, CCS has added an evening meal. How did that come about?

DK: When I came in July of 2011 we did just one lunch a day and the Salvation Army served a meal in the evening. In October (2011), the Salvation Army said they could no longer do that so a committee was formed to raise funds and keep the evening meal going. CCS agreed to do the cooking and provide the facility, if the committee could find the funding. Through a committee headed by Pamela Atkinson, Catherine Putnam-Netto and other civic-minded people, enough donations were found to keep it going. Since then, CCS has officially taken ownership of the program and due to large contributions from the LDS Church, Zions Bank, Miller Family Foundation, Simmons Family Foundation and many shareholders they will be able to continue running the program for the next several months.

DN: Serving a thousand-plus people a day is no small number. Where does all the food come from? And do you ever run out?

DK: We have a lot of food. We have all the food we need. Sometimes in March or April, before the seasonal food comes in and Christmas donations run out, there’s a lean time, but in general our resources for food are just phenomenal. The biggest supplier is the Utah Food Bank through what’s called the Grocery Rescue program. Grocery Rescue is a program that has been set up nationally where stores donate food that’s close to expiring. The Food Bank sends trucks to the stores and then delivers it to us. That’s how we get a lot of our meat and milk, and there’s always tons of bread and pastry. Plus, we have our own truck that goes out to various places and collects food donations from pizzerias, bakeries and other places.

Pizzas, for example, are always used for a backup. If there’s an unusual number of diners and it looks like we’re going to run out of food, which is pretty rare, we’ll yank out several frozen trays of pizza, put them in the convection ovens, and in four minutes they’re thawed and ready to go. The LDS Welfare Square supplies the dining room with a large amount of food commodities. A large amount of food on each tray comes from their assistance to the program. Also, when we started the evening meal, Smith’s Food and Drug came forward and said they often had things in their produce warehouse that they couldn’t quite sell in the stores but was still usable. Could we use it? So we periodically get trucks coming in from Smith’s full of pallets of produce. The kitchen will peel out the bad part and put it to use right away. They’ll throw the vegetables in a huge pot in the morning and let it cook all day. By four o’clock it’s cooked down to where you’ve got a good, thick, hearty stew for dinner.

DN: Are the meals all-you-can-eat?

DK: They’re close to it. No one should go away hungry. It used to be you could take as many trays as you wanted. I guess that came from the notion that you should never deny hungry people any food. We counted trays, not people, and our numbers were 750-800 trays a day. But what we realized is sometimes they’d take the second or third tray just to get the dessert. They’d eat the pie and throw the food out. The waste was pretty huge. We would throw out big garbage bags of food. What we do now is give everyone a ticket that’s good for one tray. We’ll double and in some cases triple the food that’s on the tray if they want, but they get the one tray. That has saved food, headaches, it’s just been wonderful. We haven’t had any complaints. It’s worked out so well we can’t believe we didn’t think to do it sooner.

DN: Is it possible to categorize your clientele?

DK: Everybody tries to categorize the homeless because it helps identify the issue and the need, but it’s really a mixture. I’m not a social worker and can’t absolutely identify them, but we have a huge mental health issue here. I would say 40 percent to 45 percent of the people who use our services fit in that category. If you housed some of them and gave them everything they needed they probably wouldn’t stay. Some are incapable of taking care of themselves. Of course, laws are so stringent regarding an individual becoming a ward of the state that it’s almost impossible to commit them to the care they need. You need like a year and a half of documentation to even get started. That’s some portion of the group. Of course addiction is another contributor. Many have simply fallen on difficult times.

DN: Besides food, what other daily services are provided by Catholic Community Services and St. Vincent’s?

DK: The Weigand Center is a terrific resource. It’s a place where homeless people can get out of the weather, either the cold or the heat, they can use the bathrooms, they can shower, they can get gently used clothing and all kinds of personal care products. We have storage areas for their stuff, they can get haircuts, both men and women, once a week. There’s a computer lab with 16 computers, and an exam room for the 4th Street Clinic. Gina Lopez is the director, and she is just tremendous. She has done so much to make the place much more of a resource center.

DN: With your close proximity to the Gateway Mall, there’s constant speculation that the homeless services might be moved elsewhere. Your thoughts?

DK: Developers are naturally going to be interested in this area. The most important thing for us is that we all work together to find a solution. Whatever decision we come to will be thoughtfully made. The Catholic diocese owns this property, The Road Home owns its property, as does the 4th Street Clinic and the Rescue Mission. My personal feeling is the question to be asked is if we can be like other cities where the homeless can be in the street, and people can live in apartments and condos and be in the street too, and we all get along? I believe that can happen. I really think if you get regular people living here and walking the streets, the group that does not want to be that visible, the drug crowd, will move somewhere else. The rest of the homeless people are fine, they are not a problem.

DN: How has directing the soup kitchen affected you personally?

DK: It’s been a tremendous privilege. When I left the priesthood I knew one thing. I knew I wanted to do something that was going to help people. This certainly provides that. If the average person came here and looked around for a day it would open their eyes tremendously. What you’d see is a lot of human beings who have a story. When you drive by you just see this mass of humanity and you might think, oh, why don’t they get a job? But when you stop and start talking to people you realize, except for this, this and this, this is me. This could be me. You know how they say we’re all just a paycheck or two away, that’s who’s here.

DN: Has anyone ever left a tip after dining?

DK: No. Never a money tip that I know of. But every now and then, as someone is leaving, they’ll stop, look you in the eye, and say thank you, thank you for all you do, you make a difference. One of those will keep you going for a week, two weeks. It makes all the difference in the world. It’s like getting an extra paycheck.