Community Kitchen in Downers Grove shuts down

Volunteers, clergy seek new solutions to serve homeless, food insecure

A member of the community eats a Thanksgiving meal at the Daybreak Center on Thanksgiving Day in Joliet.

After two years and 16,200 meals served, the Community Kitchen in Downers Grove has closed its doors, and while the future is uncertain, volunteers are regrouping and beginning efforts to replace the project and continue serving those in need.

The Community Kitchen was the result of an evolving effort to serve unhoused and food insecure residents of Downers Grove, said Denise Cantrall, who volunteered at the inception of the project. At one time, the effort was dubbed Alex’s Mission and saw volunteers set up in the parking lot of the First Congregational United Church of Christ to serve meals.

When the church was able to purchase another building to support the project, which the Rev. Scott Oberle said was influenced by high school congregation members and their interest in serving, it became the Community Kitchen. The kitchen was a 365-day service that provided breakfast and dinners until Nov. 12 when volunteers served their last meal to guests.

“Over the past couple of months there have been situations where some guests made other guests, volunteers and neighbors uncomfortable,” Oberle said. “This was happening outside of serving hours as well, and the issues just grew beyond our capacity as an organization.”

Oberle said some neighbors asked to meet with the church to discuss concerns they had regarding loitering, and volunteers had been seeing an increase in conduct violations from guests. Though those acting out represented a minority of guests, Oberle said it became clear things had shifted and it was hard for volunteers to consistently enforce the kitchen’s code of conduct.

Of the guests served at the kitchen, Oberle estimates about 60% were housing insecure while the remaining 40% were not but struggled with things such as food insecurity and loneliness. While it is important for the church to be a good neighbor, Oberle said, it is also important to continue serving and find safe ways to do so.

“There are a lot of people in the community who care a great deal,” Oberle said. “We’re going to keep working toward the aim of service so people aren’t freezing to death or starving on our streets.”

Oberle already is in talks with other church organizations about becoming part of a rotating service among those affiliated organizations. He said he meets weekly to discuss plans for the future and how to ensure safety for volunteers and guests.

Residents such as Cantrall also are doing their part to continue providing service. She said she intends to meet with Downers Grove officials to discuss what the community can do to help those in need. Cantrall said she is disappointed by the closing of the kitchen but understands why the decision was made.

“Having a group of well-meaning people does not mean you know how to deal with a mental health crisis unfolding in front of you,” Cantrall said. “I hope our community figures out what we’re going to do together and starts taking those little steps to take care of one another.”

Cantrall said she does not know the answer, but she does know that closing services such as the Community Kitchen is not the end. The result, she said, is punishment to those who aren’t involved in the conduct violations but are in need.

Oberle said he feels similarly, and that is why he considers this time a regrouping effort more than a stop sign. Often forgotten, he said, is the educational component of this kind of work, and he hopes to educate the public so that future efforts and interactions are not driven from fear.

“It’s easy to not see someone who is homeless,” Oberle said. “We are committed to trying to provide meals to those in need and we are not throwing in the towel by a long shot. We just also don’t want people to feel unsafe.”