SLU and the Fight Against Homelessness and Food Insecurity

Junior SLU student and Labre co-president Hannah Nodge remembers meeting Brian her freshman year. She was volunteering with St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless (Labre), an organization with a focus on developing friendships and extending compassion to the impoverished. While on an outreach trip, Nodge met Brian, a homeless man who was living in downtown St. Louis. Nodge was carrying her Labre quote book, full of snippets of conversation that she wanted to remember from her time volunteering. 

Founded at SLU in 2010, Labre attempts to use food as a bridge to foster conversation and relationships with people experiencing homelessness. 

“We had this conversation where we were talking a lot about handwriting,” Nodge said.  “We were talking about next week, how we’re gonna come back and we’re gonna have a cursive writing competition. And [Brian] said, ‘This right here, what you’re doing is ground zero…What you guys are doing is important.’”

Nodge returned the next week as promised, but Brian was nowhere to be found. It would be over a year until Hannah saw him again.

“I didn’t see him again until one day randomly last year at a different spot,” Nodge said. “And he was the one who recognized me and he remembered my name. I saw him continually the next few weeks after that, but that relationship I’ve shared with him is really special.” 

The issues of homelessness and food insecurity are of critical importance in the St. Louis region. A core part of SLU’s Jesuit identity involves compassionate service for others and the practice of good works. With these ideals in mind, a number of student service organizations at SLU have made a significant difference in the fight against food insecurity and homelessness. 

Dr. Tim Huffman studies homelessness, nonprofit organizing and community collaboration, including the architectural, social and financial structures that contribute to urban poverty and homelessness. An associate professor in the Department of Communication, Huffman said that some of the national issues contributing to homelessness are often reflected at the local level in St. Louis. 

“St. Louis has a relatively inexpensive housing market, and part of that is because we have a shrinking population,” Huffman said. “Our homelessness isn’t shaped like New York or Los Angeles where nobody can afford to live even if they have a full time job. In St. Louis, the problem is that people are unlikely to find housing that’s affordable, but also safe and quality. It’s not just a housing affordability problem, it’s the intersection between safety, affordability and quality.” 

Several student organizations have taken initiative and developed outreach efforts to help those who are homeless and food insecure. Founded in 2001, student volunteers in Campus Kitchen use kitchen space and donated food from their cafeterias, local grocery stores, food banks and restaurants to prepare and deliver meals to those in need.

SLU senior Denise Gomez started volunteering at Campus Kitchen her freshman year. Serving as a shift leader and executive board member, Gomez eventually became president of Campus Kitchen this past year. 

“I always like to start off by telling people that 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste every single year,” Gomez said. “And 40 million people in the U.S. are also food insecure across the country. We take that extra food and we repurpose it into about 400 meals every week and have that served out to our community partners throughout the local area.” 

Gomez said she was drawn to the idea of connecting and forming relationships with individuals in need on delivery shifts, and that it was important for SLU students to reach out and witness firsthand the positive impact they can have.  

“I think it’s really important to understand the issues that face the people that permanently live here, not just people that spend four years here and then move on and graduate,” Gomez said. “ It’s a really gratifying experience, trying out every step of the volunteer process, from picking up the food, to cooking it, to packaging it to handing it to the people directly.”

A similar organization, Billiken Bounty, is partnered with Campus Kitchen. Billiken Bounty is an on-campus food pantry that serves SLU students. The food pantry also looks to destigmatize food insecurity and educate SLU students on the issue. 

“We have a client exit survey, and reading people’s responses really emphasizes how important a resource [the food pantry] can be,” said Maxine Taylor, the junior co-chair of Billiken Bounty.

“People have explained how, due to Billiken Bounty, they are able to devote more time to school, or devote finances to other resources that they need, whether that’s paying tuition or paying rent,” Taylor said. “It’s really nice to know that by having this service, we’re able to alleviate a lot of stress for those clients.”

Taylor said that the food pantry is a valuable way to give back to the community while improving the lives of fellow SLU students. “Food insecurity is a really pervasive problem that can really affect anyone at any point in their lives,” Taylor said. “A lot of people do have to face the issue of food insecurity at one point or another, whether it’s themselves or someone they know.”

Junior SLU student and Labre co-president Mia Filipe said the deeper mission of Labre initially drew her to start volunteering for the organization, and that it was inspiring to see the gratitude that volunteers are met with when delivering simple assistance in the form of blankets and hot food on outreach trips.

“I just love how relationship-focused the work here is, because it doesn’t seem like it is just service,” Filipe said. “I love how the focus is developing friendships and how the whole point is to step out of your comfort zone, meet some new people and then continually visit them to show that you care and to reaffirm their humanity.”

Nodge said that her experiences in Labre shape the way she thinks about the role of the SLU community. 

“The second you walk off SLU’s campus, if you go one block in any direction, the immense poverty is clear,” Nodge said. “When you walk on this campus, you don’t recognize it anymore, because you’re at a billion-dollar institution,” Nodge said. “So I’ve just been thinking a lot about privilege and how we can change the narrative by focusing on the personhood of one another.” 

As part of Labre’s mission to help the homeless and food insecure, the organization is currently holding a winter supply drive. Donations of blankets, socks, gloves, hats, scarves and other winter items are welcomed, and students can find donation bins located in every residence hall. 

As a Jesuit institution, SLU has made encouraging progress at recognizing the issues of homelessness and food insecurity and translating it into action. From opening emergency winter shelters at Il Monastero and the Manresa Center to hosting the St. Louis Area Regional Commission on Homelessness (SLARCH), SLU has made this action a priority.

“At the end of the day, I’m really proud of the institution that we are and the way that this is not something that just passes us by,” Huffman said. “We’re not this sort of blind institution that doesn’t care. It’s really inspiring, the work that this community puts forward.”