Robert Gehrke: After 32 years serving sandwiches to the poor, the Good Samaritan Program is leaving its home near Cathedral of the Madeleine

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Helferty, a volunteer at the Good Samaritan House at 347 E. South Temple hands out sack lunches and a drink on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. After 32 years of serving sack lunches 365 days a year for 11 hours a day to Utah's poor, the Good Samaritan will be closing down, absorbed into the Catholic church's operations at St. Vincent's.

For 32 years now, Utah’s homeless and poor have been able to get a simple sack lunch at the Good Samaritan House, a white stone building next to the Cathedral of the Madeleine on South Temple.

Hundreds of people line up as volunteers make sandwiches, pack them into bags with a snack and dessert, send them out the door, sometimes feeding as many as 900 people each day over an 11 hour period, every day of the year.

But after serving literally millions of sandwiches, the Good Samaritan will close its doors at the end of September, part of a restructuring of how the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City serves the poor.

The lunch service will be absorbed into the mission of St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall. St. Vincent’s will expand its operating hours to accommodate the increased demand.

“The needs of the Good Samaritan Program have outgrown their current location,” Catholic Community Services (CCS) said in a statement. “By moving the program to the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, CCS will be able to provide access to case management and wrap-around services as well as the free, nutritious sandwich.”

Sandwiches will be served at St. Vincent’s from 9-11 a.m. and again from 1-3 p.m. The regular hot lunch and dinner service will remain, from noon to 1 p.m. and 5-6 p.m.

Matt Melville, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services, said the diocese asked St. Vincent’s to take on the additional responsibility and volunteers will still be needed.

CCS will also provide the meals for the three new homeless resource centers when they open their doors.

Monsignor Colin F. Bircumshaw, administrator of the Salt Lake City diocese, said through a spokesperson last week that the diocese was making the move as it explores ways to provide better service to its homeless neighbors.

Some of those who have volunteered their time and energy to help the Good Samaritan fulfill its mission were told of the decision earlier this month and are disappointed.

“It’s just a shame that all those people have to go downtown,” said Kathy Buller, who has made sandwiches at the Good Samaritan House for the past seven months.

Buller also suspects the decision is being driven by complaints from irritated neighbors.

“I do think it’s because people are tired of having the hungry come and eat next to the cathedral, but I tell you, that’s just hypocritical,” she said. “‘Feed the hungry,’ that’s what the Lord said.”

There is clearly a need for programs like Good Samaritan. According to the Food Research & Action Center, one in eight Utah households surveyed in 2016 and 2017 said they had not had enough money to buy food at some point in prior year.

The trend on hunger is moving in the right direction, which is the good news, but there are still hundreds of thousands who need help.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said of the closure. “We’ve always considered them an anchor, that people can go there anytime and get a meal.”

That is one of the legitimate concerns about the current restructuring, because in many ways the Good Samaritan Program was a model of what we want our anti-hunger programs to be.

This wasn’t some big-government effort. It has been powered by scores of caring volunteers giving freely of their time; it relied on donations from numerous community groups, from partners in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to banks to Rocky Mountain Power and various charitable foundations.

It fit the model of homeless services the state is trying to implement, spreading the resources in various neighborhoods rather than clustering them in one area of downtown. Most importantly, it worked, making sure hundreds of people every day didn’t go hungry.

It’s tricky messing with a model that has been a success for three decades. Hopefully St. Vincent’s is able to handle the increased demands and the spirit of charity and volunteerism follows to the program’s new home — we can use all we can get these days.

Robert Gehrke