Since 1980, Preble Street has been at the center of Portland’s safety net for homeless and food-insecure Mainers. The pandemic, a growing need for its services, and the city government’s failed response to the crisis have forced the soup kitchen to rethink not just its model, but its mission in order to keep feeding people
Just two blocks off Monument Square in Portland, Maine, downhill from the public library, sits a squat, gray flatiron building. Inside is a soup kitchen that has provided three meals a day, every day, to hungry Mainers in its oft-crowded dining room for more than 39 years. The staff is welcoming, the location is central, and it’s nearly impossible to get kicked out. The buffet-style spreads include loaded chef salads and heaps of bread, vegetarian options, and hearty casseroles built to nullify the New England cold. Most important, there’s always dessert.
Since 1980, Preble Street has been the linchpin of the city’s response to homelessness and food insecurity — and a life-sustaining resource for thousands. Joe Conroy is the senior director of food programs and operations at the agency that operates the eponymous soup kitchen. Leveraging a complex food-rescue and -donation system, his team churns out some 24,000 meals a month served in a cafeteria-style dining room. On any given day, anything from a pallet of B&M baked beans to a five-gallon bucket of dayboat scallops might become the featured ingredient.
“One of our enduring strengths is that no matter what happens, people know they can get a meal from us,” says Conroy, a slight man in his late 50s who speaks philosophically from behind a white mask. Before arriving at Preble, Conroy worked in restaurant management. His expertise is in building teams and mobilizing shoestring budgets, striving for restaurant-quality hospitality in Preble Street’s dining room. “I’ve spent 15 years running a soup kitchen,” he says. “That’s what I know; that’s what we’re good at. The future looks a lot different.”
As COVID-19 swept into the state last winter, Conroy’s system started breaking down. On March 15, the state began rolling out a slate of executive orders, closing public schools and restaurants and limiting gatherings. Panic shopping cut into the grocery store donations the kitchen relied on for produce, bread, and other staples. Meanwhile, chefs from the city’s celebrated restaurant scene came knocking at the soup kitchen door, dropping off anything they could salvage as they cleaned out low boys and walk-ins at their now-shuttered restaurants.
The soup kitchen dining room remained open under an exemption for social services, but Conroy knew it wouldn’t last long. He and his colleagues tried to get ahead of the virus, consulting with epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and joining conference calls with the city’s Health and Human Services Department. They walked experts through the dining room to identify high-risk elements of the operation, and they brainstormed ways to sanitize and socially distance — stocking disposable plates, doing away with self-service coffee, and restricting entry to limited, scheduled seatings.
But on March 25 last year, for the first time in its history, Preble Street closed its dining room. Suddenly, the delicate web of social services that Portland’s unhoused community relied on to meet basic needs, a system largely concentrated in Preble’s Bayside neighborhood, began to unravel. This unravelling, which led to a forced dispersal of the city’s homeless population, brought into stark relief the conflicting imperatives of public health, public safety, and emergency services brought on by the pandemic. It became clear that if Preble Street was going to keep feeding people, the model — and maybe even the organization’s entire mission — would need to be rethought.
Morgan Ditmars stands on a milk crate at the empty steam table inside the Preble Street kitchen, flanked by six boxes of assorted pancake mixes and two eight-quart containers of liquid eggs, milk, and slicks of vegetable oil. She is trying to reverse-engineer a sheet-pan coffee cake, but the wet mix was assembled by a previous shift and the pancake mixes have different qualities of flour and quantities of leavener. Without a recipe or a reliable set of ingredients, she’s forced to test and taste. “Thankfully, I’ve worked with so many doughs, and I’ve done pretty much every kind of baking,” says Ditmars, who’s been working at Preble Street since June. “I’m going to add some nuts and cranberries. I find a lot of uses for canned cherry pie filling. I’m always going for anti-bland.”
Ditmars’s coffee cake must travel: It will be portioned, packed in hundreds of individual to-go containers, and hauled to various shelters and social service agencies across the city. When the dining room closed, Conroy realized they would have to bring meals to the overnight shelters that house and serve homeless people. In essence, Preble Street did what sit-down restaurants all over the country were being forced to do: pivot to takeout and delivery.
The shift — enacted as the kitchen continued to serve to-go meals to people who kept knocking on the dining room door, as many as 300 a day — upended Preble Street’s time-tested recipes and procedures. Many of the soup kitchen’s old-school casseroles had to be adapted to survive for hours in paper takeout containers, which meant dialing back liquid sauces and gravies and finding new strategies for sneaking nutrition into entrees. Portioning, loading, and delivery drastically changed workflow and prep times. To accommodate the extra workload, Conroy expanded his kitchen staff, hiring veteran chefs, cooks, bakers, and bartenders who were suddenly unemployed when Portland’s bars and restaurants shut down.
Before she was laid off in March, Ditmars, a pastry chef, had been busy developing the summer dessert menus at Little Giant, one of the restaurants that earned Portland the title of Bon Appétit’s Restaurant City of the Year in 2018. “I was kind of thankful to have time off,” she says. “It helped me reevaluate what’s important. Here, it’s a very different type of chaos. But everyone cares, even if it’s in their own unique way.”
A whiteboard by the dining room’s service window tracks the numbers. For dinner on this mid-October evening, 150 meals, plus seven vegetarian options and one for a client with an onion allergy, have to get to Oxford Street Shelter by 4:45 p.m. Another 40 will be dropped at the Milestone detox shelter, and a few more at the YMCA’s single-room occupancy residences. After that, a driver will pick up 40 portions to deliver to a Quality Inn on the outskirts of town, where the city is housing overflow from the family shelter it runs.
Each 16-ounce to-go container is filled with a homey macaroni dish, studded with beef and broccoli and suspended in a pumpkin-cheese sauce. “I tried to get rid of some of the pumpkin cans that are stacking up in the back, but I mixed it with plenty of cheddar and American cheese, and some warm spices,” explains Haley Deluca Lowell, a kitchen assistant who had been in Kathmandu on a teaching fellowship before she was forced to return home as the virus set in.
The result is a little more complex and healthful than pure mac and cheese, but it’s still decidedly comfort food. Given how ingredients come and go around here, Deluca Lowell probably couldn’t make it the same way twice.
“It’s no different than any other kitchen, really,” says Andrew Roseman, who came to Preble Street after the virus upended his grilled cheese pop-up Dora’s Box. “Shit still needs to get done. The only difference is that there is no menu. It’s all specials, every day.”
In addition to on-site takeout and delivery meals, which primarily serve folks who are currently unhoused or living in emergency shelters, Preble Street did what it could to absorb broader waves of food insecurity brought on by the pandemic: Conroy expanded Preble Street’s weekly grocery pantry — which offers produce, pantry staples, and more to a diverse array of Portlanders — to seven days a week. In March alone, Preble Street provided an estimated 39,000 people with grocery boxes; in June, it cut back to five days a week, and averaged 270 boxes a day throughout last summer and into the fall.
A portion of the pantry’s regulars come from Portland’s burgeoning population of immigrants and refugees from central and eastern Africa, a community Portlanders warmly refer to as “New Mainers.” They are, literally, some of the only “new” Mainers; the state has one of the slowest population growth rates and oldest median ages in the nation, as Maine’s tourism-centered economy has hemorrhaged young folks and professionals for years. The city and nonprofit agencies have made efforts to offer support to New Mainers as they settle into new surroundings, and Conroy and the soup kitchen staff take pains to provide familiar and culturally appropriate food where possible. A whiteboard by the pantry door is filled with phonetic translations of common vegetables and staples from a number of languages.
Sam Atwood, a social worker at Preble Street, is a near-daily fixture at the thick plexiglass barrier that divides the dining room-turned-warehouse from the pantry clients queued up outside. Atwood greets guests in a mashup of Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and Lingala that has become the pantry window’s lingua franca: Hello. Solo Lingala? Yo no hablo Lingala. Francesa? Portuguesa? Ah, Portuguesa. E sete pessoas. Todos los frutas os legumes?
The pantry serves people with a wide range of living situations, medical concerns, and cultural backgrounds. Atwood tries to tailor each box to a client’s circumstances. One woman in line is picking up for herself and her partner, who are currently sleeping in a tent nearby. Lacking any access to dental care, the condition of her teeth makes it difficult to chew; her box includes some lunch-size portions of precooked honey Buffalo boneless wings, a stack of Trader Giotto’s Classic Italian Wraps, a four-pack of cinnamon chip muffins, a jar of strawberry jelly, milk, and soft sliced wheat bread.
Next up is a group of four who cook on a campfire: Two packs of frozen brats, two sleeves of hot dog buns, one gallon of whole milk, one jumbo bag of cereal, two cartons of green grapes, and a bottle of yellow mustard. Another customer approaches the window with two young children weaving between her legs. She’s cooking for a big family and explains to Atwood that she just needs the fruit and vegetables. Atwood packs her a heavy box full of beets, habaneros, kale, sweet potatoes, and citrus, and hands the kids a cupcake for the road.
Conroy poached Atwood from another department in the early days of the pandemic; this is his first time working with food. He has found the experience illuminating. “You have to feed people in a way that’s effective and consistent with their identity. That’s important to people being successful and feeling like they have some agency in their lives. Hunger is global, but food is individual. That’s been fascinating to me.”
Atwood says the pandemic has made hunger and homelessness more visible to the general public. “People are surprised to see fellow humans living outside trying to meet basic needs. They aren’t in our day shelter, or our courtyard, but they still need water, they still need to charge their phones. People are going to survive however they can. The fewer services there are, the less pretty it’s going to be.”
Portland, a city of 65,000 people, has attracted unhoused Mainers to its concentration of social services for decades, as the city administers much of the state’s homeless response: It accounts for 50 percent of state spending on welfare programs from the General Assistance Fund, which covers a variety of needs for low-income and unhoused individuals, despite having only 5 percent of Maine’s population.
As a cook at Preble Street from 2015 to 2017, I watched people experiencing homelessness navigate a well-trodden patchwork of city and nonprofit operations to meet their basic needs. Many of these services are situated in Bayside, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown, where the Preble Street kitchen is located: One might sleep at the Oxford Street Shelter, head to Preble Street for breakfast and a shower, visit a temp agency or a clinic a block or two away, then make their way back to Preble Street for dinner. Also in the vicinity are the Maine Access Immigrant Network, Goodwill Workforce Solutions, the Salvation Army, and the City of Portland Family Shelter. Long lines and crowded rooms were the norm.
When I stopped in to volunteer at the kitchen over the summer, I saw many of those agencies begin to close or limit capacity — and a system designed to concentrate services was suddenly forced to spread them out. Before the pandemic, the Oxford Street Shelter regularly filled its 154 available beds. Now it’s limited to 75 a night, with another 75 beds in an overflow facility a few miles away. The city, meanwhile, rented hotel rooms to house families and others unable to stay at the shelter, often at the edges of the city, far from food, medical care, or public transportation lines.
When Portland opened the Oxford Street Shelter, in 1989, Bayside was dominated by working-class apartment buildings, garages, and warehouses. These days, the city’s real estate boom is finally reaching the neighborhood, and breweries, gyms, and restaurants now ring Preble Street. But the soup kitchen, the shelters, and operations that serve the food insecure, unsheltered, and others in need still anchor the neighborhood.
The Bayside Neighborhood Council, a consortium of neighborhood property owners and residents, has long complained about bearing the ill effects of the city’s homeless response — a sentiment echoed early in the pandemic at the highest levels of city government. In an emergency city council meeting on April 1, Councilor Kim Cook described the blocks around Preble Street as a “bastion of lawlessness.” City Manager Jon Jennings added, “We need to reclaim that part of West Bayside.” Adding to the protestations of local business owners, police were dialing back arrests in favor of court summonses for minor offenses like trespassing and disorderly conduct in an effort to prevent overcrowding in the jail during the pandemic.
As spring turned to summer, the situation in Bayside declined for everyone. Despite encountering closed doors and new restrictions, people accustomed to getting help in the neighborhood continued to spend time there, some setting up semi-permanently on streets and sidewalks close to one of the last primary resources around: takeout meals from Preble Street. Particularly at mealtimes, lines outside the kitchen often exceeded the city’s limit on gatherings, and mask use was spotty at best. With less support from the agency’s social work staff, many of whom were working from home, the soup kitchen’s staff found themselves in the position of regularly responding to client needs beyond the scope of hunger, including mental health emergencies, confrontations, and other incidents.
Over the next few months, the kitchen staff at Preble street got on as well as they could with their takeout-and-delivery model. On July 12, however, the organization made the decision to discontinue takeout service, citing public health risks to clients and kitchen staff. The following morning, city police and sanitation workers arrived, announcing a scheduled street cleaning. According to multiple eyewitness accounts, police told the people gathered there that they had to vacate the street, and said that any personal property left behind would be confiscated. “It was a pretty traumatizing time for everyone,” says Deena Metzler, who opened the kitchen that morning. “It was hard to watch.”
Privately, some Preble Street staff and clientele grumbled that the timing of the sweep smacked of collusion: The kitchen stopped serving to-go meals and fenced off its outdoor courtyard less than 24 hours before the sweep. Representatives from the nonprofit and from the city deny this. Officially, Preble Street closed to mitigate health risks to clients and staff. But whatever the case, the result was a sudden exodus of unhoused Portlanders out of Bayside. People scattered across the city, with a good number headed several blocks west to Deering Oaks Park, a sprawling city park that hosts youth-league sports and the Portland Farmers’ Market. There, a new encampment formed, sandwiched on the park’s edge between the post office and the rose garden, along a major thoroughfare.
The decision to end the kitchen’s takeout service, coupled with this sudden diaspora, created a new challenge for Conroy and his team: They now had to find a way to feed an increasingly far-flung population of people who had no central place to go.
The Preble Street Outreach Collaborative, a mobile operation launched the same day the kitchen ceased offering local takeout, was designed to address that problem. In a white van on loan from another food pantry, a team of social workers began distributing meals and providing a range of services right on city sidewalks at approximately eight locations across the Portland peninsula. Conroy and his colleagues worked with other social services agencies to develop the route, which was announced on flyers distributed by a mix of staff and volunteers. “It’s about getting food to folks, but it’s also about knowing that if someone’s unsheltered, they might have a host of other needs we can help them with,” explains Ali Lovejoy, Preble Street’s senior director for social work.
When the collaborative began delivering meals to the encampment at Deering Oaks, however, it once again bumped into the city’s handling of the crisis. In a hand-delivered letter on July 17, acting Parks and Facilities Director Ethan Hipple and City Manager Jon Jennings told Preble Street to “cease and desist” serving people in the park, saying it needed a permit to distribute food to groups of 50 or more.
Kristen Dow, the city’s director of Health and Human Services, said that the letter was served on behalf of the parks department and wasn’t related to the city’s public health policies or homeless response. Nevertheless, the letter was a manifestation of the argument, made implicitly by some city officials and neighborhood groups, that emergency services perpetuate, rather than alleviate, the burdens of homelessness — that allowing Preble Street to feed people in the park would only make the encampment grow, not disperse.
Conroy found the letter a little unusual. “They could have called me,” he says. “They’ve got my phone number.”
Rather than work with the city on licensing, the Outreach Collaborative stopped delivering food to the park. Instead, it directed the people camping there to walk a few blocks over to a building Preble Street owns, where the van distributed meals. It was an easy enough fix. But the pressure to move people out of public parks and squares continued through the summer and into fall, forcing the collaborative to continuously adjust its routes as it tracked hungry clients across the city. When sheltering around Bayside became impossible, some people headed to the park; when the city turned up the pressure to leave the park, people went farther afield for places to simply be. “We’re seeing clients dispersing more and more,” Lovejoy said in late October. “At Deering Oaks, for example, the city started enforcing a curfew, so people weren’t allowed to stay there at night. And we’ve heard that people are starting to receive CTOs [criminal trespass orders] from the waterfront.”
On a raw, wet October afternoon, the Outreach van weaves through Portland’s picturesque colonial squares and along its cobblestone-lined waterfront, pulling up to a small park adjacent to the Ferry Terminal. The terminal serves residents of Portland Harbor’s many islands, as well as thousands of tourists a year. Eight months into the pandemic, the terminal courtyard and park are silent, save for a small group of unhoused folks spread out on blankets in the grass, beneath a persistent drizzle.
Michele Arcand, a Preble Street social worker, says the collaborative is doing a pretty good job keeping up with its harried clientele as the city forces them from one location to the next, but the uncertainty takes a toll. “I don’t know if there’s more hunger, but there is certainly more fear of hunger,” she says. “People aren’t sure where they’re going to get food next.”
The pandemic had turned the cracks in Portland’s social safety net into fissures. And people were falling through them. An exhausted-looking woman in her early 30s approaches the van. On the verge of tears, she describes a dismal loop of sleeping outside, incurring trespassing citations, curfew violations, arrests, releases, and more citations. “I’ve been kicked out of Oxford Street [shelter] and the Expo [overflow shelter],” she says. “They gave me a curfew so I have to be off public property by 5 p.m. I’ve got so many court dates I can’t even keep track. I’ve been wearing the same green sweatpants for two weeks — they spot me every time.”
Arcand hands her the evening’s meal of stir-fried chicken and rice, a banana, chips, and cookies, and a few bottles of water. She calls a halfway house run by a Catholic charity, Sisters of Mercy, to see if it has a bed for the woman. It doesn’t. Before she goes, she fishes a pair of black wind pants from a cardboard box of clothing donations tucked behind the dinner hotboxes.
As Arcand drives away, she spots two police officers making their way toward the group in the park. She whips the van around to plead the woman’s case with the officers. “There’s really nowhere I can put her right now,” she says, “but I’m trying. I’ve got her started with Sisters of Mercy. I just wanted you guys to know I’m working on her.”
The officers hear Arcand out. They know most of the people in the park by name, and insist they aren’t interested in kicking anyone around. They say that business owners are constantly calling in reports around the waterfront, so they have to show up.
“Just let her get one good night’s sleep, guys, we’ll find her some place,” Arcand says. Back in the van, she shouts out the window to the woman and her friends as they tuck into the chicken and rice. “You guys take care of each other tonight.”
“That was good,” she says as she drives off. “I wanted them to see that she’s trying, that we’re trying.”
Minutes later, Arcand stops at a red light on Middle Street, a portion of which has been cordoned off for outdoor dining at a trio of restaurants. Those in the first seating are just taking their places beneath a long white tent, strung with Edison bulbs and punctuated with overhead heaters. “Oh shit, Grumpy!” she says suddenly. “I haven’t seen him in days.”
She puts the van in park and jumps out in the middle of the intersection with a takeout box in each hand, chasing an older man pushing a shopping cart piled high with clothes and other possessions down Middle Street in the direction of the restaurants. Grumpy doesn’t protest as she wedges the containers into his brimming cart. Arcand hops back in the van. The light has changed, and she speeds off, ignoring the traffic backed up behind her. The corner table at one of the restaurants looks up from pre-dinner cocktails and offers a small, awkward round of applause.
Back at Preble Street, Joe Conroy sits in a small office just off the silent atrium of an upstairs common room, poring over spreadsheets and order forms. The faint hum of oven fans and the clang of dishes rises from the kitchen. As subzero temperatures descend on the coast of Maine and the pandemic surges, many of the solutions Preble Street has relied on for months have become untenable. The first heavy snow of the year grounded the Outreach van, and staff and volunteers had to carry hotboxes of food on foot through the blanketed streets. “Everyone is doing what they can to get people fed and housed and dig ourselves out of this,” he says. “But we keep digging and digging, and we can’t seem to find the bottom.”
The pandemic has changed how Preble Street thinks about its model of concentrated daily services. Even after a vaccine becomes widely available, as Mark Swann, the organization’s executive director, told local reporters, “the days of really crowded shelters and soup kitchens and drop-in centers are behind us.” Instead, Preble Street wants to turn the building into a 40-guest transitional housing facility where people can sleep, live, work, and, of course, eat. On January 6, after heated public comment for and against the proposal, the city approved Preble Street’s permit for the renovation. They plan to have it open by March, adding 40 new beds to Portland’s emergency shelter stock. Conroy’s kitchen will become a commissary, which the agency is rebranding as the Preble Street Central Kitchen. Takeout and delivery, it seems, are here to stay.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization.