Out in the Kitchen

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This story was originally published in the April/May 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.

Jens Christensen, CCK director

Jens Christensen, CCK director

More than just a place to turn for a hot meal, Chattanooga Community Kitchen (CCK) has been providing the homeless community with customized care and services for over 30 years.

Mission-minded from their humble beginning, the CCK began in 1982 when seven area churches collaborated to better meet the needs of the growing homeless population in Chattanooga, who would often knock on the churches’ doors seeking food and shelter. They began organizing a basic meal program that operated out of one of the church’s basements.

After securing their first building in 1986 at 727 East 11th Street, CCK was able to expand their operation beyond providing food. Two night shelters, St. Matthew’s Shelter for Men and St. Catherine’s Shelter for women and children were acquired, both of which are still operating today.

Two years later, the Hamilton County Health Department created the Homeless Heath Care Center, a program that offers a full range of treatments for the homeless specifically. First housed in the central CCK building, it moved to an adjacent building on 11th Street in 1994 after it outgrew the original space. The CCK also began receiving grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order to create more specific programs to help homeless individuals get back on their feet. So while the name Chattanooga Community Kitchen sounds more food-focused, its goals and impact are much more far-reaching.

The new shelter partners with CCK. Left to right, Wesley Cherry, shelter supervisor, Paul Luikart, shelter director, and Chris Maclellan, Foundation representative.

The new shelter partners with CCK. Left to right, Wesley Cherry, shelter supervisor, Paul Luikart, shelter director, and Chris Maclellan, Foundation representative.

“The meals are just the beginning, they fulfill a direct and immediate need,” says CCK Executive Director Jens Christensen. “Our mission is to provide services to help people escape homelessness. We want to ultimately help them find permanent housing and put them on a path towards self-sufficiency.”

Named Executive Director in June of 2014, Christensen has held several roles at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen since he began working there in 2004 and has witnessed the organization’s incredible growth.

Currently, the CCK offers three meals a day, having served a total of 182,762 meals in 2014. Adjacent to the kitchen is the day center. This area includes bathroom and shower facilities, phone and mail services, interview rooms, and a common area where people can socialize and coordinate services. Also located in the day center is the foot care program. Volunteer nurses from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hold clinics throughout the year that provide cleaning and medical services to the feet of the homeless. Last year, over 960 individuals were served through 47 foot care clinics.

Typically open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., CCK also operates as a 24-hour shelter during cold weather months to ensure that everyone has a safe and warm place to sleep at night. In addition to these services, it runs three case management programs that focus on long-term solutions to homelessness: a job skills program (HELP II), the Supplemental Assistance for Facilities to Aid the Homeless (SAFAH), and the Family Housing and Learning Center (FHLC).

Meal service teams like this one served 182,762 meals in 2014.

Meal service teams like this one served 182,762 meals in 2014.

While all are unique, these three grant-funded programs primarily focus on helping people acquire job skills and securing permanent and safe housing. The programs are all tailored to specifically fit the needs and challenges that the homeless community faces.

For example, the Family Housing Learning Center provides entire families with transitional housing that they can live in for up to 24 months. While there, the family pays a rental fee proportionate to their income, and works with a caseworker to set goals for the future. Once a family moves into a new residence, they are able to receive 75% of the rent they paid back in the form of a rental rebate to help them through the first few months on their own.

Most recently, in December of 2014, the Maclellan Shelter for Families opened, through collaboration with the Maclellan Foundation. This facility operates as a short-term emergency shelter that families can move into on the very night they become homeless. Described as an “oasis in the desert of homelessness” by one of the current residents, families in the facility have access to all of CCK’s programs like meals, job training, and case management.

While pleased with what has been accomplished so far, supporters say the Chattanooga Community Kitchen is always looking to expand its outreach.

Volunteer UTC nurses hold foot-care clinics throughout the year.

Volunteer UTC nurses hold foot-care clinics throughout the year.

“We hope to really begin focusing on expanding our programs that assist people in finding permanent housing, as we believe that is the ultimate solution to homelessness, “says Christensen. “We also are going to continue searching for solutions to close the gap between affordable housing and living on a minimum wage, as that is an issue that hugely prevents people from finding permanent housing.”

Luckily for Christensen and the rest of the staff at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, they are not alone in this search. “We are fortunately in a community where many people are aware of this issue and are actively working on a solution,” says Christensen.

While they employ a dedicated staff, the CCK relies heavily on volunteers to help make their programs a success. “We absolutely thrive on volunteerism,” says Christensen. With over 38,000 hours from 2,350 volunteers in 2014, he is certainly not exaggerating.

Corporate donors like Five Star Food Service, a vending, micro-market and food service company donates volunteer hours, supplies and often sponsors fundraising events. CEO Alan Recher says “It’s a good fit for us.”

Christiansen feels Chattanooga’s dedication to provide for underserved communities is unusual and it helps make his job a little easier. “We are incredibly blessed to have such a tremendously supportive community here in Chattanooga,” he says. “I think this city has a true heart for understanding and helping people in need. They support what we do, and believe in the value of each person, just like we do here at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.”

Photography courtesy of Chattanooga Community Kitchen

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Lindsey Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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