The Living Room pivots from shelter to food
The Living Room’s courtyard is a little oasis tucked behind what was once a single-family home right off of the busy intersection of Cleveland and College Avenues. The walkways are lined with herbs and flowers, and lead to rustically landscaped patios with umbrella-covered tables surrounding a sweet fountain that the local birds adore. Under normal conditions, The Living Room is a day shelter for women and children from Sonoma County who are experiencing homelessness. Once this courtyard was a bustling common area filled with women and playful children. But since COVID, the courtyard has remained mostly empty, as have the outbuildings where classes were held, laundry was washed, showers were luxuriated in, and naps were taken in large comfy barcaloungers—sometimes the only safe, solid rest these women would get.
Still, plenty of life fills the space here—namely, The Living Room’s core team of 7 dedicated staff members and 23 revolving volunteers, and the small pack of dogs that come along with them. After passing through a COVID checkpoint (thermometer and sanitizer), I was given a masked tour of the grounds by Communications Manager Kelly Keagy, who started at The Living Room as a volunteer after the 2017 Tubbs fire that ravaged Santa Rosa.
“The Living Room got its start 27 years ago at the Church of Incarnation on Cherry Street,” she tells me. “They realized the need for a safe place for women and children to go, as most shelters made you leave during the day. So they opened a few rooms and provided coffee and cookies, and as more needs were recognized, the program grew. Four years ago, we bought and renovated this property and filed as a 401c; we wanted to do more.” Besides offering meals, services, classes, and groups ranging from knitting to financial awareness to yoga, Keagy explains, “we wanted to provide a place to relax, and a sense of community.”
Community is not easy to create in the era of social distancing, but there is one tried-and-true way to do it: sharing food. And as Keagy led me to The Living Room’s modern kitchen outfitted for high-volume service, it was instantly apparent that this is the heart and soul of The Living Room, the driving life force behind their mission.
And they are not messing around in there. In the last few months, The Living Room’s meal production has more than doubled. Each weekday, they create two healthy, delicious, restaurant-worthy meals and pass them through a service window to the inevitable line of hungry folks that gather between 10:30 am and 1:00 pm. “We see more people towards the end of the month when money starts to run out, but on average, we serve around 125 meals a day, and that number is growing,” says Keagy, adding, “Because of COVID, many other food programs have shut down, so we have expanded our food service to anyone who needs it, regardless of gender—we just couldn’t see any moral way to only serve women at the window when so many people are hungry.”
When I stopped by to visit, The Living Room kitchen and pantry manager Kristian Bartolome and three volunteers were just about to start food service. They had spent the morning rolling substantial breakfast burritos, a near-daily staple, which were resting in warming pans next to heaps of saucy ribs, baked beans, cornbread, and a fresh garden salad.
“Today we were at the food bank and got so excited when we saw these ribs, we had to grab them. That’s not something we see there too often,” Bartolome tells me. Although The Living Room makes regular trips to the food bank, approximately 95 percent of the food they serve comes directly from community donations from organizations like Harvest for the Hungry and Farm to Pantry, and local businesses like Clover Sonoma and Bella Rosa Coffee. The produce, particularly this time of year, is delivered fresh and in massive quantities daily.
“Sonoma County has such an abundance from amazing farms and home gardens. These days the challenge is finding different ways to use all the zucchini,” Bartolome says (his favorite is simple, pan-fried with garlic and butter).
Menu planning, which Bartolome mainly leaves to the three volunteer head chefs, was described by several kitchen staffers as “like Iron Chef.” The focus is always turning the eclectic array of donations into hot, well-balanced, nourishing food. “If this is going to be your only meal today, it has to be a) nutritious and b) filling,” says Keagy. The kitchen staff takes this one step further, though, elevating each ingredient into meals that are also delectable.
The Living Room’s diverse, drool-worthy plates are always hearty and protein-forward, ranging from duck á l’orange to Bartolome’s Filipino family recipes. “I’ve learned from these chefs that you can make really good, quality meals without spending too much or just pouring something out of a box,” says Bartolome, adding, “Really good food is something everyone deserves, and if we are capable of doing it, we should. We don’t compromise.”
When Bartolome isn’t shoulder-to-shoulder with the cooks in the kitchen, he spends his time working out the kinks in The Living Room’s newest food program, Blue Basket Pantry, which is now in the “stress-testing” phase of development. “We are starting small but expect this program to grow and grow with no end goal in sight,” says Bartolome.
Designed primarily for those experiencing food insecurity but have the means to store and cook food themselves, each box is carefully curated with thoughtfully chosen items intended to make a week’s worth of three specific meals a day so that ingredients can be optimally used and nothing wasted. The boxes also come with recipe cards for each meal, written by Bartolome himself, that are meant to be saved and reused. Keagy tells me, “We don’t want to just help the homeless, we want to help keep people from being homeless. Providing food at home to financially insecure people is just one of the ways we are doing that.”
On the Friday that I was there, kitchen volunteer Kyle Domian was stuffing Ziplock bags full of a myriad of snacks, canned food, ready-to-eat meals and protein shakes to hold people over the weekend when The Living Room doesn’t have hot food service. “I’ve been on the other side, not knowing where my next meal is, and I know how much it means to have calories in my stomach. I want to help others in ways that I was helped,” Domian tells me. Facility assistant Alonso Alvarez calls this “a small help that makes a huge difference.”
The Living Room also has a variety of hygiene products at the ready as well as essential clothing items, such as the thousands of pairs of high-quality socks donated by Bombas Socks. Also on the premises was Dogwood Animal Rescue’s community outreach program organizers and volunteers, who shows up weekly to hand out pet food, supplies, and flea medications, as well as arrange veterinary services. Redwood Gospel Mission sets up mobile showers once a week, Sonoma Acts of Kindness has been on site to help people get their stimulus checks, and The Living Room has hosted COVID testing in their parking lot.
“No one agency can do it all. This is a field that really needs collaboration to make a difference, to effect lasting change,” says Keagy, adding, “People who are disenfranchised, who have experienced trauma, are the ones most in need of human connection. We are here to help create and reestablish connections vital to the ability to thrive.”