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The global coronavirus pandemic forces volunteers to limit meals for homeless and hungry in downtown Portland.

SUBMITTED - The volunteer-led group Free Hot Soup has set up handwashing stations and continues to distribute sack lunches to the hungry at Director Park in downtown Portland each Wednesday. Meals are disappearing from Director Park, and it's not because every empty belly has been filled.

Free Hot Soup — the kitchen-sink collective serving the homeless and hungry in downtown Portland — has reduced its meal service to just one day per week, Wednesdays, due to the novel coronavirus.

"It's tough to fold, and I really don't want to," said Jennifer Skyler, a key organizer with the group for the past several years. "We've all cried over this."

SUBMITTED - Jennifer Skyler, center, has volunteered and organized with Free Hot Soup for several years. Free Hot Soup emerged unscathed last year after former City Commissioner Nick Fish instituted new park regulations mandating event insurance and food handling licenses — requirements that volunteers said were too onerous for a group primarily organized on Facebook.

City Hall backed down after a wave of press coverage and a lawsuit, but the outbreak of COVID-19 presents a perfect storm for organizers, who are mostly retired people, immigrants who can't afford to get sick, or people living with a compromised immune system.

Skyler, who has asthma, said her partner, Greg Liascos, and others will continue to distribute to-go lunches on Wednesdays at the public square, 815 S.W. Park Ave. A recent sack meal given to 150 was packed with sandwiches, potato salad, bananas, plums and a cookie.

Under the previous five nights of weekday service, Free Hot Soup gave out roughly 1,000 meals per week. The line grows longer later in the month, as about half the guests have a home but can't make Social Security or other benefits stretch a full 30 days.

"We're not seeing the city step up and provide food resources," Skyler said. "I would love to see more city support rather than just opening shelters, which are scary for people living on the street, because they're afraid of getting sick."

The food is mostly gleaned, or donated from restaurants and grocery stores. Skyler has a membership with Birch Community Services' food pantry in Gresham via her nonprofit, Beautiful Portland. But the group doesn't have access to a commercial kitchen, so everything must be prepared and stored inside volunteers' homes.

"You should see my electric bill, it's crazy," she said.

She has pointed many in the food line toward Blanchet House, which is only about 13 blocks away, and hopes those who aren't going hungry can donate or support the nonprofit in other ways.

The Portland Tribune's news partner, OPB, reports that Blanchet House now is serving 1,500 meals daily; about a 40% increase since before the global pandemic.

Elsewhere in the central city, Union Gospel Mission is now serving all meals to go. Portland Rescue Mission is continuing to offer meals and shelter while also practicing social distancing.

SUBMITTED - Before the global spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, volunteers with Free Hot Soup distributed meals to several hundred each weekday.


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