An Astoria nonprofit is opening a daytime drop-in center for the homeless.
Filling Empty Bellies, best known for providing free lunches at Peoples Park near the Astoria Riverwalk downtown, announced Wednesday it would be sharing space at the former Tide Point restaurant off state Highway 202 with an employment agency.
The nonprofit plans to offer a suite of services at the building, including job-skills training, referrals, showers and laundry facilities, said Erin Carlsen, co-director of Filling Empty Bellies. The building will also be a place to store food, clothing and other donations.
“It’s a place to go,” said Vernon Hall, co-director of Filling Empty Bellies.
Carlsen and Hall will begin using the building almost immediately, but it will be several weeks before they are able to open a resource office and longer to set up a commercial kitchen. The lunches will continue at Peoples Park. Food storage will gradually shift to the building so volunteers can use the space to prepare meals. Filling Empty Bellies serves an average of 30 to 40 people at their lunches. Of those people, most — around 20 people or more — are consistent participants, attending the lunches and helping to manage the program.
Over the past six months, Filling Empty Bellies has shifted its focus to become an organization run “by street people, for street people,” Carlsen said. She and Hall plan to continue this model at the drop-in center. But transportation will be a challenge. The people Filling Empty Bellies serves have scant resources and often no mode of transportation besides their own two legs.
The drop-in center is at the base of the city’s South Slope, on the other side of the hill from downtown. The bus route ends roughly a mile away from the building. Hall hopes Filling Empty Bellies will be able to work with the city, Clatsop County and the Sunset Empire Transportation District on solutions.
He and Carlsen believe the drop-in center will be a positive development both for the people they serve and the broader community, which has struggled with how to address a spike in homelessness. The center will draw homeless people away from downtown, where their presence has been controversial, Carlsen said.
Total Employment and Management — or TEAM, an employment agency with an office in Astoria — is leasing the building and splitting the cost of rent with Filling Empty Bellies. Carlsen has worked with TEAM as a representative and on special projects while TEAM has found jobs in the area for a number of Filling Empty Bellies participants.
The employment agency will use part of the building and employ some of Filling Empty Bellies’ participants to take care of building maintenance, cooking, cleaning and office work.
Filling Empty Bellies organizers began looking for a building in January with the hope of providing a place for homeless people to go during the day and access multiple resources. Drop-in centers have come up as an option in discussions at the city’s homelessness solutions task force meetings.
“It’s kind of surreal to be honest,” said Carlsen, who is taking it one step at a time. “All along this has just been the vision.”