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Penticton Soupateria: Feeding the hungry and homeless for three decades

Saying there's a homelessness issue in Penticton is like saying there's a wildfire issue in California. Everybody knows it, and everybody knows it's only getting worse.

One thing is certain. While the powers that be try to figure out what to do on a long term basis, there's no shortage of organizations working hard to improve the day to day life of the folks who just keep slipping between the cracks.

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Organizations like the Penticton Community Soupateria Outreach. Operating out of a donated space at the Saint Savior's Church compound in downtown Penticton, the volunteer-driven Soupateria has been serving lunches to the impoverished and homeless since the mid 1980s.

That's a heck of a track record. Home-cooked lunches for a hundred-plus people every day for three decades, with absolutely no government support. The logistics alone are mind-boggling.

We showed up at the facility mid-morning on a Wednesday (then again the day after, and once more the following Monday) to check out the inner workings. The weather any of those days would be typically be described as "crisp." But to people who live and often sleep outdoors, it was nothing other than cold.

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Outside, even 60 minutes before the 11:30 start, a dozen or so folks hovered about. One with his bike, one in his wheelchair, a couple with dogs, others alone or in pairs, talking. And waiting.

We'd learn later that two rival "clients," as they call them at Soupateria, set fire to each other's shopping carts earlier that morning. Bylaw officers were called in, and the flames were extinguished and order restored. Sometimes that's the nature of the business.

Inside, a large space with 60 or so upholstered chairs and eight cafeteria-style tables. At the north end of the room, behind a wall with several serving windows cut into it, the full-service kitchen.

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At 10 a.m., that's where the action was. A half dozen people cooking, prepping, washing dishes, and doing all the stuff you'd see in a restaurant kitchen. They were enthusiastic, and the food looked and smelled good.

Lauraine Bailie has been a big part of Soupateria since 1996. She's the volunteer coordinator, and as such plays a pivotal role.

"My family has been involved since '95. I came on board the year after that, and my husband (Jack) has been volunteering here for that length of time too. Jack was in the military 30 years, so when we retired here, it was just a natural thing to volunteer. We had a good life, so now it's time to give back."

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In time, we'd learn that's the typical attitude at Souapteria. Give unto others.

Bailie, who's also on the board and is a director, checked her calendar and her meticulously kept notebook. "We must abide by the interior health regulations for operating a restaurant," she cautioned.

"So the shift runs from 8 to 1. At service time, it takes seven people. Dishwasher, clean side of the dishwasher, a person serving beverages, a person bussing dirty dishes, a soupmaker, two people at the service window, and an eighth person to circulate."

Bailie says the church has essentially given Soupetria the space for as long as it's needed. "All we do is pay part of the utilities and do the maintenance inside the walls."

She talks about all the organizations involved and how they each handle different days of the month. Anglican Church, Seventh Day Adventist, United Church, Catholic Church, Oasis United, and more.

And she clearly loves what she does, saying the positive interactions far outweigh the negative and the clients are generally good-natured and appreciative.

Asked if she's ever felt in danger, she says no. Though she admits feeling "uncomfortable" two years ago when a group of "hardcore drug traffickers thought they'd take over" and began bullying the regulars.

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"We talked to the RCMP and we hired a security guard to come in at lunch time," she says.

Today, that guard is still there. "We also work closely with the RCMP, so they come in and do occasional walk-throughs or drive-bys."

Bailie would love to see more volunteers, though she advises it's not for everyone. "This can be a very emotional situation. You have to like people of all attitudes, and you have to develop a thick skin.

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"Sometimes the volunteers get upset with clients who come to the window to say they didn't like their meal. But to me, if they feel secure enough to come up here and make a complaint, that means they're comfortable with us.

"You are your brother's keeper," she says. "We're all just one paycheck way from coming through that door."

As Bailie talks, another volunteer walks by carrying a big box of vegetables. His name is Roderick Strike. He's a retired chef, a current wine tour guide, and a Soupateria ex-president. He humbly says he's now just a helper, but you know deep down that he carries more weight than that.

"My role is to basically run around trying to liaison the major grocery chains in town into giving up their near-expired foods before they throw it out, and get them to donate here to Soupateria."

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Strike takes great pains to point out the retailers who've contributed the most. He's especially enthusiastic about the Penticton IGA ("Colin the owner, you phone him, you need something, he'll pony up"), and the Wholesale Club through Loblaws.

Other key contributors include Shoppers Drug Mart, Bench Market, Starbucks, Tim Hortons, and the recently enrolled Save-On Foods. Moreover, says Strike, several businesses "come in and spend a day with us." Those businesses include Subway, Domino's Pizza, Telus, Wouda's Bakery, and Valley First Credit Union.

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Strike's been with Soupateria for five years. "I was doing a volunteer dinner for another organization and was putting it together in the hall next door, and one of the ovens didn't work. So I came here and asked if I could use their oven.

"And the woman that was here, Kris Rusk, let me use it. Then the next day she called me and said, 'Now you owe me, so now you need to come in and make soup.' So I did. And then she said 'Now you can in twice a month.' So I did." And his role grew from there.

It took Strike some time to fully grasp the situation. "When I first started, it was hard to understand why it is what it is. And then after a while you understand that the majority of these people suffer from some kind of trauma throughout their life or mental health issues."

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"Most want to bond and help each other, but there are others who want to make it difficult for others. There's aggression, and arguments. It doesn't happen in here, but I see it outside.

"But at the end of the day, everyone gets a hot meal and the volunteers feel good about what they're doing. Without the volunteers, this would place would never happen."

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At 11:30, the clients begin filing in, those with mobility issues at the front of the pack. The old and the young, the hungry and the cold, all a wee bit happier there was a hearty meal at the end of the line.

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Anyone wanting to volunteer, even just a few hours per month, is encouraged to check out the Soupateria website and look for the "Volunteers" pull-down menu. In the meantime, look out for our follow-up piece, where we get up close and personal with two of Soupateria's greatest success stories. Two really phenomenal clients, in their own words, coming soon.

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