- Matthew Thorsen
- Dessert table
As if a dinner bell had sounded, the line outside the Salvation Army started forming at 4:50 p.m. on a Tuesday night in January. People shuffled toward the door, many laden with heavy backpacks, in anticipation of the free community meal that is served up every night of the week except Sunday — open to all, no questions asked.
About a dozen people waited along South Champlain Street in downtown Burlington in the winter dusk, some engaged in muffled conversation. Most were regulars at "Sally's," the nickname they've bestowed on the Salvation Army to make it sound more like a hometown diner.
Jamaican-born "Birdman" — "'Cause my middle name's Bird, and I'm a man" — was among them. He's a fixture in downtown Burlington, known for pushing a shopping cart he fills with redeemable cans. Birdman wore sunglasses in spite of the overcast, darkening sky. Around his neck hung a tangled mass of green and white Mardi Gras beads and a Vermont Strong license plate.
Birdman writes his own raps and was more than happy to show them off to a reporter on the sidewalk, grinning as he swayed to his own rhythmic monotone. Next to him was a mostly empty Bud Ice can. "Don't mind that," he said, pushing it aside.
The Salvation Army doors opened at the stroke of five, and the line snaked in. The smell of smoke lingered, even after many had extinguished their cigarettes against the outside of the brick building.
It was beef stew night, courtesy of St. John Vianney Church in South Burlington. Parishioners had cooked up vats of it earlier that afternoon, said Kate Boucher, who organized the effort. Steam from the kitchen billowed into the hallway.
- Matthew Thorsen
- Volunteers delivering food
The ingredients arrive twice weekly, donated by local supermarkets and delivered by the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, said Jessica Gokey, the Salvation Army's paid kitchen supervisor. Gokey oversees operations most nights and cooks dinners when volunteers haven't signed up to take her place.
The dining room has the sterile, dingy feel of a high school cafeteria, owing to the linoleum floor and florescent lights. But Sunday school-style posters of Jesus and a prayer of St. Francis adorn the walls.
One volunteer shoveled out portions of beef, potatoes, carrots and peas from tinfoil-covered pots into Styrofoam cups. "Stew?" she asked, again and again.
Another dished out lettuce salad onto Styrofoam plates, with a spongy roll on the side. On a separate table, there were brownies on individual plates. Suspended above them, four identical signs read, "Please take only ONE dessert."
After three years working in the kitchen, Gokey knows the regulars by name. The Salvation Army serves 50 people a night during the winter months, she said, and up to 200 in the summer. She attributed the seasonal discrepancy in part to the number of homeless staying in out-of-town motels when it's cold. According to its website, the organization serves about 28,000 meals annually.
Gokey was in a small office off the main room while five women working as volunteers scrambled to put out the food. One man, who said he volunteers nearly every day, stopped in briefly, depositing his bag beside his dog, a mostly hairless Chinese crested terrier in a pink sweater. The miniature dog, he explained, is a hypoallergenic service canine. Its 33-year-old owner, who described himself as homeless, declined to give his name. After staying "clean" for two and a half years, he said he prefers to keep to himself.
As Gokey explained daily operations, her 10-year-old son stood by her side, chiming in as he plunged his hand into a box of Cheez-Its. He knows "lots of stuff" about the place, he said. He's been frequenting the Salvation Army since he was 6 — or maybe 8, he corrected himself.
- Matthew Thorsen
- Dining room
By 5:10 p.m., dinner was in full swing. Nearly three dozen diners sat at round tables facing a flat-screen TV on the wall. They either stared at their food or at the WCAX news broadcast before them.
The crew was diverse: single men with beards; a sullen, twentysomething couple; a studious-looking man with a beret and peacoat. One younger woman said she lost her job during the recession; others said they have been living on the streets off and on for decades.
Most didn't bother unbundling. They hunched over their food wearing heavy coats and hoods.
I, too, loaded stew and salad onto one of the dull-brown cafeteria trays and brought it to a half-filled table. Dinners at Sally's have become a weekly ritual for me in my efforts to learn about and report on Burlington.
From the "guests," I've come to expect regular servings of self-deprecating banter and a stream of gossip of interest only to those who live, eat and sleep in the close quarters of the warming shelter. Aloof though they sometimes are, these individuals share a common vulnerability. They seem to respect each other's privacy.
And they almost always remember to thank the volunteer cooks for the hot meal.
On this particular night, though, one man at my table had harsh words for the newscast. After eating silently but with gusto, he leapt up to leave. "It's all bullshit," he said, gesturing at the TV. He stated in no uncertain terms that a news segment on police bias was entirely fabricated. "They can't think for themselves," he said. "I call them 'repeaters,' not 'reporters.'"
I murmured noncommittally and shoved my reporter's notebook deeper into my pocket.
Other diners seemed eager to engage, volunteering the most intimate of details about evictions, finding places to sleep and pee, the challenges of the easily made, easily broken relationships of those forced to rely on each other.
"I'm getting sick of it," admitted a man named Todd, who looked to be in his early forties. As he threw his plastic utensils in the trash, he grumbled about the rules of the homeless shelter, including "getting up at 7 a.m."
Todd hoped to find an affordable apartment and move out of the shelter, he said. "I have an income, you know — I get SSI," he added, referring to Social Security benefits.
The crowd thinned as the dinner hour wore on. A few minutes before 6 p.m., a volunteer warned diners to finish up.
Soon, the team of women was cleaning, mopping and washing dishes. One tied up a trash bag overflowing with Styrofoam. And almost too soon to believe, they were done.
Meanwhile, stragglers packed up their bags and bid each other goodnight.
One of the last to leave was a man with a thick beard and cheeks chapped from the cold. He looked around for his bulging backpack and, when he found it, slung it over his shoulder. "This is my home," he said of the rucksack, confiding as he walked off: "God, I am not ready to sleep outside tonight."