Joan Cheever and her husband, Dennis Quinn, are no strangers to disaster. Over the last 13 years, they’ve served more than 100,000 meals to victims and first responders in the aftermath of 10 hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires from Oklahoma to New York.
The 11th disaster they’ve responded to, the coronavirus pandemic, is like none other they’ve seen.
Friday marked the close of their seventh week tirelessly cooking alongside professional chefs at Range restaurant’s kitchen downtown. So far, they’ve prepared 44,221 meals. The food is picked up and distributed by the Catholic Worker House, which serves homeless people meals in the East Side, and Meals on Wheels, which delivers to the elderly and disabled.
Another seven weeks at this pace and they’ll have provided roughly the same amount of food during the COVID-19 crisis as they did during 10 disasters.
“The food production line is crazy,” Cheever said. “Never in my wildest imagination of a disaster would I have ever thought that we would get to these numbers.”
The Chow Train, the food truck and nonprofit Cheever founded in 2011 that runs entirely on private donations, stopped its weekly feeding program for the homeless in 2018, but it never officially “closed.”
“We still have our food truck,” Quinn said. “We made a conscious decision not to sell it. … We knew a disaster would happen. This is just a different disaster.”
This time they aren’t using the food truck. Logistically, and for health reasons, it didn’t make sense to be mobile, Cheever said.
“I just felt like if we could free up some of [Meals on Wheels and Catholic Worker House’s] volunteers’ time … it would enable them to spend a little bit more time doing wellness checks,” she said.
“We’ve always been boots on the ground, right there with people who are newly homeless,” she added. “So we’re still doing what we do, but from a personal standpoint we don’t get to interact with the people we’re helping.”
On the ground at the Catholic Worker House on Friday, the crowd was thinner than the usual 175 who come for food. It’s the first of the month and many collect disability, retirement, or other benefit checks. Bright orange spray paint on the ground every 6 feet indicates where people should stand and orange Home Depot buckets, which serve as temporary chairs, dot the front yard.
There have been no recorded cases of COVID-19 among Bexar County’s homeless population, but local officials say it’s just a matter of time.
Sometimes Executive Director Chris Plauche has to step in to firmly ask guests to stay 6 feet apart.
“Sometimes they look at me like I’m from outer space,” she said. “All in all they don’t get served unless they comply and that eventually gets them going [along with the rules].”
Fridays are unusual because it’s the day they serve both breakfast and lunch at 9 a.m. so staff can start cleaning the house and prepping for the next week, Plauche said. It’s also the day they serve sack lunches instead of food prepared by Chow Train, which delivers four times a week.
The weekday lines at Catholic Worker House have tripled in size compared with pre-coronavirus numbers, and they’ve distributed hundreds of masks.
Each person who gets a meal is asked about any symptoms exhibited and gets a temperature check by Plauche. So far they haven’t had any issues, she said.
“She reminds me of my grandma,” Andres Perez said of Plauche as she took his temperature.
“At least it’s not great-grandma,” Plauche quipped.
She seems to know almost every person who approaches the collapsible table. Each has a name and a story.
Perez said living at Haven for Hope, the city’s largest homeless shelter, was good for him and now, he said, he lives with a friend nearby.
“I want to make a documentary about this,” he said of the Catholic Worker House and the people it’s serving.
A nonprofit plans to transform nearly 16 acres of vacant land into a campus that will provide housing and support services for homeless people in San Antonio’s East Side.
Responding to an ‘invisible disaster’
Another unique element of a pandemic is that even once the virus is somewhat contained, and it’s unclear when that will be, the economic fallout will continue long after, Quinn said.
“This is more of a silent, invisible disaster,” he said. “Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires – you can see them.”
Another new element to the Chow Train’s response is that they’ve hired professional chefs to help them. They are usually volunteer-operated.
Restaurants are allowed to open up their dining rooms to 25 percent capacity as of May 1, but many chefs, cooks, servers, and bartenders are out of work.
“It just seemed right to hire some [chefs],” Quinn said.
Cheever and Quinn met with Chef and restauranteur Jason Dady, who owns Range and several other establishments, in mid-March. He was serving meals for laid-off hospitality workers at Alamo BBQ when they told him their plan to start cooking mass quantities of food.
The Chow Train will serve its last Tuesday dinner on Christmas night.
“There’s only one problem,” Cheever recalls telling Dady, “we don’t have a kitchen.”
“That’s when [Dady] put his hands in his pocket and just dropped the keys [in my hand],” she said.
“It’s all yours,” he said.
Range’s kitchen, on the second floor at 125 E. Houston St. (connected to the Embassy Suites by Hilton), has plenty of room for Chow Train volunteers, and new chef employees, to spread out.
Donald Thompson was cooking at Range before the coronavirus hit and is now working there with Chow Train.
“It’s very different,” Thompson said, but they still take great care in the meals they prepare.
“We try to be creative with the products that we have on hand,” said chef Patrick Dickinson, who also works at Tre Trattoria, one of Dady’s other restaurants that has converted to delivery and take out. “We want to be energized about what we’re doing … we mix it up.”
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They’ve made hundreds of portions of chicken fried rice, gumbo, pineapple chicken, venison chili, pork and chicken enchiladas, cream of mushroom soup, and more.
“Chefs are artists and the canvas is your plate,” Cheever said. “You eat with your eyes,” too, and the people they are serving are no different.
Providing sack lunches, snacks, and other food is a vital piece of helping this vulnerable population through these particularly challenging times, Cheever said.
Typically the Chow Train focuses on healthier options, but she admits most of the dishes they’re making these days are “comfort food” – with a side of veggies.
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“A home-cooked meal is a plate of love,” she said. “I just don’t think that people can live on sandwiches alone.”
Hubs and a hotel
The City of San Antonio has established several “hubs” across the city to provide meals, sanitation supplies, and other resources for its homeless population. It has also paused its efforts to break up homeless encampments unless they pose as a safety threat in often-flooding drainage areas.
Homeless shelters such as Haven for Hope and Salvation Army stopped taking in new residents in late March.
For older homeless people and those with an underlying health condition, the City leased out a downtown hotel to allow them to safely quarantine. It has leased other hotels for isolation and health monitoring of a homeless person – or anyone who needs it, for that matter – who tests positive for coronavirus.
Cheever said she isn’t sure if the homeless population has increased yet due to the coronavirus’ impacts on the economy – but it does make them more visible.
“In this disaster, that’s who you’re seeing because everyone else is off the street,” she said. “You just didn’t see them [before].”