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Vanessa Houk helps prepare a serving table for Friday's free meal at Pioneer Hall in Ashland. (Photo by Denise Baratta)

Skillets & skill sets: Seeking a space to fix food and mend lives

“We need a home!”

That’s the plea being voiced by Jason and Vanessa Houk of Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice as they search for a space for job training, classes, outreach and a kitchen for food storage and to help prepare daily hot meals for “our homeless friends.”

The nonprofit organization has steady sources of grants and donations (though they can always can use more) that can go toward the “dream space,” which should have 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, central location, storage, office space, good neighbors and room for a kitchen. It would not only would be used to help in the daily food program, but would be a teaching kitchen where people can be trained for jobs in Ashland’s many restaurants, says Jason.

Many of the homeless already have culinary skills and practice in the arts, so it would furnish a spot to sell their arts, as they can’t do it on the streets of Ashland, says Vanessa. Jason emphasizes it will not be a soup kitchen or “day center” for hanging out. It is not related to the search for a shelter.

SOJWJ supports daily meals at at 5 p.m. at the Lithia Park gazebo on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and at Pioneer Hall on Fridays. On Saturdays, it’s at the gazebo at 2 p.m.

Uncle Foods Diner serves up a meal at the Methodist Church on Tuesdays. The privately supplied “Cormac meal” is Sundays.

These would continue. The gazebo meal is largely supported by privately donated crock-pot type meals and is in warmer months. Food goes to shelters in winter months. Food Angels and restaurants also help, with Greenleaf being an “outstanding supporter.”

The new SOJWJ kitchen would augment the service and allow for storage of much food that is now wasted. The Houks have been handling much of these tasks in their own kitchen and they would prefer a working space outside their home.

“There’s an amazing outpouring of support and excitement for a community kitchen and we are redoubling our efforts to find one — or a space that can be converted to a kitchen,” says Jason. “We have a huge community of supporters and lots of donations in labor and materials too.”

The homeless have skills in painting, pen-and-ink drawing, crafts, fiber arts and “they are very creative in repurposing things, but,” says Jason, “the challenge is to get space to showcase their talents and make a couple dollars. There are very few such opportunities other than panhandling. They can’t put their wares out in public without incurring wrath.”

The Houks note that local restaurants require a sizable workforce, creating a steady demand for qualified applicants, so a training program would help the local economy, get people off the streets and “we find a lot of people get satisfaction doing kitchen work.

“The ideal intention,” says Jason, “is it’s a learning center, a skill center, with staff and volunteers, to support the mission of building working class solidarity.”

To reach the Houks, call Jason at 541-841-8341 or email him jason@kskq.org; call Vanessa at 541-930-2170 or email sunriver@gmail.com.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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