AURORA | The shelves in the back of Friends of St. Andrew Hospitality Center aren’t exactly overflowing these days.
Spaces that once held jars and jars of spaghetti sauce and bags of rice sit empty, forcing volunteers there to make do with what they can.
On a recent afternoon, the team of volunteers filling grocery baskets for needy families had to toss in a couple extra cans of canned spaghetti because they were fresh out of spaghetti sauce. And some families had to go without canned fruit because there wasn’t any left.
Days like that are common this time of year at Friends, which is a charitable arm of Queen of Peace Catholic Church. Having given out almost 200 special Thanksgiving baskets has dramatically depleted the food pantry’s supply.
Maureen Hampson, the center’s director and lone paid staffer, said the weeks after Thanksgiving and before Christmas are always difficult because so much of the food in the pantry goes into the Thanksgiving baskets.
That means donations right now can be particularly helpful, she said.
“It’s a great time to give,” she said.
The hospitality center at 1525 Dallas St. is the city’s only soup kitchen and one of the few agencies in town dedicated to making sure the needy have something to eat. Beyond serving a hot lunch to about 170 people Monday through Thursday, Friends also gives out about 25 food baskets a day to needy families. The hope is that the baskets will help a family or a homeless person get through the week ahead.
Hampson said what the center needs most this time of year is cash donations. Food donations are always appreciated — especially canned food with pull tabs so people living on the street can open them easily — but Hampson said cash donations are better for a couple reasons.
For one, if Friends gets cash, Hampson can use it to buy food from Food Bank of the Rockies. Those dollars go a lot further than they would at a local grocery store, she said, so she can buy more food for Friends.
Second, Hampson said that with cash, she can buy exactly what the center is low on. Sometimes, like last week, the pantry runs particularly low on apple sauce or some other canned fruit. With a cash donation, Hampson said she can make sure the food baskets have a good balance.
Hampson said the need for food certainly hasn’t dwindled in recent years.
“I think the need has gone up,” she said.
Beyond serving meals and giving out food baskets, Friends operates as a hub for the area’s homeless community. It’s not just a place where the needy know they can score a hot meal on a cold day, the volunteers there also help people get in touch with a variety of local service agencies who can help them get the government aid they are entitled to.
For some homeless folks who don’t have an address, Friends serves almost like a post office, with the client’s mail being shipped to Friends and the client coming by to grab it when they can.
Last week, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development said there are still almost 10,000 homeless people on Colorado’s streets.
The agency’s annual estimate of homelessness said there were 9,754 homeless people in Colorado on the January night when federal and local agencies made their estimate. That’s 5,728 fewer homeless people than in 2012, when there were more than 15,000 homeless people in Colorado.
HUD officials said that 36-percent drop is a good sign.
“We’re making real and significant progress to reduce homelessness in this country and now is not the time to retreat from doing what we know works,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a statement last week announcing the findings. “If we’re going to end homelessness as we know it, we need a continued bipartisan commitment from Congress to break the cycle trapping our most vulnerable citizens between living in a shelter or a life on the streets.”
Rick Garcia, HUD’s Rocky Mountain Regional Administrator, said it’s vital that efforts to curb homelessness continue.
“Local housing and service providers are on the front lines of helping us battle homelessness and they need our help if we’re going to cross the finish line. Not only is there a moral imperative to tackle this problem head on, it makes fiscal sense to invest in solutions that work,” he said in the statement.
Still, in the gritty northwest Aurora neighborhoods that surround Friends, homelessness and hunger remain persistent.
That can lead to some long days for the volunteers, but none of the regular volunteers seem to mind the work load.
One of those volunteers, Jim Servin, has been coming to Friends every Tuesday for several years now. He spends most of those days in the food pantry, filling grocery baskets for needy families.
The clients are generally thrilled when volunteers walk through the door with a basket piled high with canned food, cereal, bread and some meat.
Servin said there is the occasional grumpy client who wants more than Friends can give, but those are rare. More often, when he gives someone a few bags of groceries they say “thanks, and God bless,” he said.
“And that makes it all worth it right there,” he said.
For more on Friends or to donate, call 303-364-2329 or visit www.queenofpeace.net/friends_st_andrew.html