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The Power of Soup 

How pumpkin bisque is fighting homelessness in North Idaho.

click to enlarge Mary Lou Reed
  • Mary Lou Reed

Remember the line in an old camp song, “Please check your razors and your chewing gum at the door”? Well, it’s Christmas week and I’m checking my politics and pointed remarks at the door, to write instead about a heartwarming effort spearheaded by St. Vincent de Paul of North Idaho.

It’s a heart-, body- and soul-warming endeavor.

As the cold of winter descends and we are all warm and snug in our beds, it’s hard to imagine what it feels like to be one of the 600-plus individuals who dot North Idaho without a roof over their heads.

In addition to the two emergency shelters it maintains for the homeless, St. Vincent’s opens two warming centers when the temperature outside drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The warming centers exist to make sure nobody out there freezes to death.

That’s a noble, if modest, goal. But in addition to warmth, volunteers offer soup, coffee and TV-watching to the folks who find their way to either one of the two centers. They also are given coats, blankets and sleeping bags. Both centers are equipped with full bathrooms and showers — welcome amenities when you’re out in the cold and down on your luck.

Some months ago, Chris Copstead, former Coeur d’Alene city councilman and active community volunteer, came up with an idea for raising money to support these two warming centers.

Titled “Soup-ort the End of Homelessness,” the program converted the St. Pius gymnasium into a giant community soup kitchen on Nov. 18. The public was invited to come and sample 17 different delicious soups, each provided by a generous sponsor. People came in droves. Over 500 showed up for lunch and packed the house.

It was a slick operation. You paid your $10 at the door and were handed a wooden nickel to toss in the ballot cup of the soup you judged to be the tastiest. Then you were sent down the soup line, manned by fast-talking, persuasive soup cooks, who ladled out healthy dollops of their concoction into baby-sized Dixie cups.

You could just eat in line, chatting from one soup pot to the next, or more daintily, sitting at one of the long tables that filled the room. The camaraderie among the volunteer cooks was infectious.

Chris Copstead told me that no one said “no” when asked to help out.

Coeur d’Alene firefighters won first place for their outstanding pumpkin bisque; Jan and Troy Tymesen came in second for a hard-to-beat cream of broccoli and cheese.

I was impressed by the colorful, Chicago-style tactics built in to the race for Best Soup; volunteers hawked extra wooden nickels to encourage you to vote again and again. The sale of votes raised an extra $350 to warm the homeless.

Enough money — $10,000 — was raised at Soup-ort the End of Homelessness and other events of Homelessness Awareness week to underwrite the warming centers for the entire winter season.

The city of Coeur d’Alene has adopted a 10- Year Plan to End Homelessness. An important part of the plan is the Housing First model, which suggests that finding appropriate housing for a homeless family is the most important first step needed to get them off the streets and into the community.

I was told one success story about a family of six who drove into Coeur d’Alene last month on the evening when winter arrived precipitously and the temperature plummeted close to zero. The father, mother and four young children had no money, no place to stay, no job, but somehow found their way to the warming center. The “team” was miraculously able to get the family into a house within a 24-hour time period.

The team I refer to is a hardworking consortium of 14 different nonprofits and agencies that deliver services to the needy. They are housed together in the Help Center, the former Coeur d’Alene Library Building, leased to the group by the city.

The Help Center is key to the consortium’s effort to end homelessness. Councilman Mike Kennedy, the city’s go-to man for homeless issues, says, “The formation of the Help Center permits one-stop access for individuals and families in need of immediate services. It saves money, time, stress, and provides relief to the recipients of help.”

Councilman Kennedy also gives kudos to Family Promises and Fresh Start, two organizations that provide great assistance to the homeless.

It’s hard to imagine what it feels like to be one of the 600-plus individuals who dot North Idaho without a roof over their heads.

To meet the economic climate of joblessness and the early winter in North Idaho, our St. Vincent de Paul also offers hot soup to the clients or future clients who walk in the doors of their offices each day. Anticipating 60 days of cold weather a year, St. Vincent’s is looking for 60 volunteers to each soup-port their efforts. Right now, 85-100 walk-ins a day are offered soup, hot coffee and drinking water.

If, in the spirit of Christmas, you or your organization would like to sponsor a soup day (about three crockpots full of soup), call 208-664-3095 and ask for Karen. Or, if you just want to send a donation to help the homeless, the mailing address is St. Vincent de Paul, 201 E. Harrison, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814.

Merry Christmas! Enjoy your warm bed, hearth and home.

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