This past weekend, DESK hosted its annual Strategic Planning Retreat. Board members, staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders came together to revisit our mission, examine our impact, and determine a path forward for future services and programming.
This year, our leadership focused on the next phase of our dinner program, as we struggle to respond to an increase in food insecurity and hunger in New Haven. Do we go back to big, indoor, community dinners, like we had pre-pandemic? Do we stick with the popular grab-and-go model we adopted in 2020? Do we merge our Drop-in Center program with the dinner program? Do we explore new avenues and new partnerships for meeting the need?
These are big questions! And they certainly can’t be answered in just a six-hour retreat on a weekend. Instead, the group used this time to brainstorm possibilities and begin mapping the strategy to fill in our knowledge-gaps over the next six to eight months. With the proper resources and information, our Board will have the tools to make an informed decision on how best to serve our community.
So in case you were wondering, this is what responsible governance looks like!
Huge shout out to Southern Connecticut State University and the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement for offering up their beautiful new space in the Health and Human Services Building — thank you!
They say it’s best to avoid politics and religion in polite conversation. But here’s another thorny topic that threatens to divide us: Winter—do you love it or hate it?
At DESK, our opinion of winter has swung back and forth over the years. Not too long ago, we really looked forward to winter as our quietest months. It’s counterintuitive when you’re in the business of basic needs, but, at one time, we saw fewer Guests at dinner in the winter because there were fewer people living on the streets: seasonal shelter beds would open every November, and unsheltered homelessness in New Haven would decrease for a couple of months. Fewer people on the streets meant fewer people at DESK.
But all that’s changed.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the numbers of unhoused individuals on the streets increase and the number of shelter beds decrease—a mismatch of supply and demand. To respond to this need, DESK has been called upon repeatedly in recent years to step up and do more.
And we’ve responded. On a blustery night almost a year ago, DESK did something that, in our 35-year history, we had never done before: we didn’t close after dinner. Instead, we stayed open until the next morning to offer a safe place—a literal refuge—for people with nowhere else to turn.
Last winter, we stayed open overnight 47 more times. This winter, we’re taking it even further. On November 28, we began using our new Drop-in & Resource Center on State Street as a seven-night-per-week, overnight warming center. And we’ll keep this up for 140 nights, straight into mid-April: a critical, life-saving refuge for people with nowhere to go.
DESK may be known primarily for food assistance, but those we serve will tell you that we’re so much more than a “soup kitchen.” Whatever our people need—food, clothing, toiletries, overnight refuge, medical care, blankets, coats, case management, or just someone to talk to—that is what we offer. Food is a good starting point, but it’s not the only reason we open our hearts to the most vulnerable in our community. As we often joke around here: we don’t serve food; we serve people!
And as for winter, it’s a bitter-sweet opportunity for DESK to do what we do best: connect with those who are most in need. We’re looking forward to the day when we can enjoy our quiet winters again, where people come to us not because they have to, as a life-saving measure, but because they want to, as a way to find and build community. Until then, help us ensure that no one gets left out in the cold.
Community has always been our key to success. In the past two-and-a-half years, COVID has made that clearer than ever. Not a day goes by at DESK when I’m not on the phone with one of our dozens of partners: businesses, schools, faith-based organizations, funding agencies, and—these days especially—other social service providers like DESK.
A strong community can meet the challenge of any crisis, whether it’s a global pandemic or our neighbors forced to live on the streets. That’s why we’ve forged a new partnership with our longtime friends at Loaves & Fishes.
I’m telling you all this because you should know that when you support our work, you’re not only supporting DESK; you’re supporting a community of providers.
Building a Community to Last
When it comes to helping people, New Haven is a great place to work collaboratively. In 2019, DESK became one of the founding organizations of the Greater New Haven Coordinated Food Assistance Network, or CFAN, a collaboration of more than 60 members and two dozen food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food assistance providers. I’ve had the honor of serving as one of the co-chairs since that time. CFAN has been instrumental throughout the pandemic in getting food out to underserved communities, coordinating “summer gap” meals for students in the New Haven Public Schools, and offering technical assistance and trainings to newer pantries just starting out.
DESK also works shoulder-to-shoulder with homelessness service providers through the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness and the Coordinated Access Network (CAN). These groups bring together dozens of partners on a daily basis to coordinate street outreach, shelter, medical and psychiatric care, supportive housing, and financial stabilization. DESK’s new Drop-in & Resource Center plays a critical role as part of this system, offering a front door for those who are unhoused.
Designing the Olive Street Pantry
For many years, DESK has worked closely with Loaves & Fishes, a food pantry based out of the Church of St. Paul & St. James at the corner of Chapel and Olive St. Like DESK, the staff and volunteers at Loaves & Fishes believe in the importance of dignity and a client-centered approach to helping people access nutritious food. And, like DESK, they have pushed the limits and expanded their impact in recent years. With only two blocks between them and our new Drop-in & Resource Center on State Street, a partnership felt natural.
This summer, after months of preparations, we moved DESK’s Wednesday pantry to Loaves & Fishes’ building, blending some of our staff and volunteers and providing more coordinated services than ever before. With that, the Olive Street Pantry was born! The response from our “shoppers” has been very positive so far: less confusion, easier access, better experience. And that’s what it’s all about.
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At DESK, we’re not afraid to be bold, and we’re not resistant to change. Whether it’s launching new programs, forging new partnerships, or defining what it means to be more than a “soup kitchen,” DESK takes a modern, progressive, community-based approach. We build as big a tent as possible, and welcome as many as we can to dwell within it.
Your support today will help build a bigger tent by enabling a community to ensure basic, lifesaving needs and provide critical resources that will move individuals and families beyond homelessness and poverty.
Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen is excited to announce the addition of three new members to our Board of Directors: Amelea Lowery, Tom Goldenberg, and Pastor Kelcy Steele. With diverse personal and professional backgrounds, these three extraordinary individuals bring extensive leadership experience and passion for service to DESK’s Board.
Amelea Lowery (she/her/hers) hails from the San Francisco Bay Area and has lived in New Haven for three years. Having earned her B.S. in Nutritional Science, Amelea now works in Public Health, supporting health equity research with Associate Dean Marcella Nunez-Smith at the Yale School of Medicine.
Amelea was drawn to DESK because of its clear mission to promote health, community, and equity. She believes that stronger communities are the foundation for meaningful and lasting change. Amelea recognizes that DESK’s dedication to harm reduction demonstrates how it seeks to disrupt the pervasive cycle that inevitably leads to worsened health outcomes. Joining the board complements Amelea’s current work with the Board of Directors of Medicare for All CT; the Social Justice Committee of the Yale African American Affinity Group; and her previous work as a Community Research Fellow for CARE (Community Alliance for Research and Engagement).
As a Board Member, she hopes to bring an unapologetic perspective that challenges the status quo and allows us to reimagine what’s possible in tackling systems of oppression. Amelea is grateful for this opportunity and excited to learn from the amazing leaders and community members working alongside DESK.
Tom Goldenberg (he/him/his) was born and raised in the New Haven area. With a B.A. in Cultural Studies and an M.B.A. from Columbia, Tom is now a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where his work focuses on improving the effectiveness of public finance institutions. He also serves as a business advisor to underrepresented entrepreneurs in Greater New Haven through his work with another community organization, Collab.
Tom is thrilled to return to DESK after having volunteered in his youth. He is eager to give back to the New Haven community and make it a better place to live. Tom is enthusiastic about helping DESK in its mission to serve people experiencing homelessness or living in poverty.
Pastor Kelcy Steele (he/him/his) is originally from Rock Hill, South Carolina, and has called New Haven home for over six years. He graduated with a B.A. in Religion and Psychology and earned his M.Div. from UTS. Pastor K. is the 23rd Pastor of New Haven’s historic Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. He also serves the New Haven community as the CEO of the Varick Center for Empowerment; Imani Breakthrough Project Leader; Founder of the Connecticut Social Justice Collaborative; founding member of the CT Equity Now; the Board Chair of Booker T. Washington Academy; an affiliate member of New Haven Rising; the Director of Evangelism for the New England Conference; Dean of the Hartford District Studies; Cultural Ambassador of Yale Center for Clinical Investigation; a Board Member of Bridges of Hope; and the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Pastor K. was drawn to DESK because its mission fits into his calling. He believes that all people should have equal access to food, health, and community resources. As a board member, he aspires to uphold the mission and vision of DESK and make a positive contribution to the many services and projects currently in the works.