St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall is a godsend, a place where homeless people can down a hearty lunch and dinner seven days a week — but it runs on volunteers who seem to be evaporating with the troubling news from Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district.
Reports of violence leading up to Operation Rio Grande — a law enforcement sweep targeting drug dealers and addicts — are frightening away volunteers, said Danielle Stamos, spokeswoman for Catholic Community Services of Utah (CCS), which runs the dining hall.
“We‘re struggling to find volunteers to serve lunch and dinner,” Stamos said Thursday.
St. Vincent requires some 80 volunteers a day to serve lunch to 500 people and dinner to another 500, said Monica Rich, volunteer coordinator for CCS.
But after several homicides and other violent episodes, the dining hall is getting by on about half that, Rich said. Nonetheless, it is still serving the same number of people.
After three days of Operation Rio Grande, the area is less congested and much safer, said Matt Melville, CCS director of homeless services.
“We rely heavily on volunteers,” he said. “But some groups have canceled or reduced their commitment.”
Longtime volunteer Erlinda Anderson noted there has never been any trouble inside the dining hall — a safe haven, where homeless diners say they feel welcome and comfortable.
“I come here every Tuesday and Thursday,” Anderson said. “I love to do it. It‘s good for the soul.”
Chief Master Sgt. John Salazar, Utah Air National Guard, was volunteering Thursday, along with a half-dozen other Guardsmen.
His group volunteers at St. Vincent twice a month. He agreed that the Rio Grande area is less crowded and much cleaner than it was on the previous visit.
“It‘s the right thing to do,” he said of his service at the dining hall. “Volunteers built America and keep America running.”
Kenneth Hollie, 55, eats at St. Vincent regularly. The unemployed truck driver has been staying at The Road Home shelter across Rio Grande Street from the dining hall for about a year.
“It‘s safe here,” he said of St. Vincent.
And the neighborhood is much better after the onset of Operation Rio Grande, he said. “It‘s a tremendous turnaround.”
Victoria Childers, 65, echoes that sentiment.
“This is a good place to come,” she said of St. Vincent. “We come in here to eat. We don‘t cause problems.”
The fact that the dining hall’s numbers have not gone down indicates its clientele is not involved in violence or the drug trade, Melville said.
“Without volunteers, we can‘t do much,” he said. “We just need a little more help.”
People or groups who would like to volunteer can send an email to Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org.