Chef cooks up meals, provides supplies for homeless campers

Special Reports

Former Portland restaurant owner says effort is to help meet people’s ‘basic needs’

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — For local chef Jenn Louis, something changed in her perception of homeless camps that she would normally see driving by in her car when she actually took the time to walk up to one in person. 

Back in December, her boyfriend had just cleaned out his closet and didn’t know what to do with a pile of old sweaters he didn’t want anymore. Louis took the bag of sweaters and decided to deliver them to several local homeless camps. 

Jenn Louis packs her car with supplies to deliver to homeless campers two days a week. May 12, 2021 (KOIN).

“After I brought the sweaters out, the next day I went and I got a huge bag of rice and I had a bunch of beans so I made rice and beans, which is just like the most basic, user friendly meal that, you know, could be vegan, the whole thing,” Louis said.

She cooked the rice and beans, put them in containers, and packed them in a cooler to keep them when. 

“I brought it out and I just started driving around. And then I did it the next day, then I did it the next day. And I started to get to know where the camps were and who the clusters of people were. And who was on their own. And it just kind of developed into some relationships,” Louis said. 

Now Louis runs a twice-weekly operation, donating meals, clothing and toiletries to make sure her homeless neighbors don’t go hungry, as well as make sure they have access to hygiene products and other supplies. It’s all fueled by community donations. 

“It’s very unifying. It’s really nice to bring the community together this way. And it’s not a fix and it’s not a bandaid. It’s to make sure that basic needs are met.” 

Stacks of food line the shelves in the basement of Jenn Louis’s house as part of an initiative to deliver food to homeless campers. May 12, 2021 (KOIN).

Louis said she’s begun getting to know some of her regulars, feeding 30 people per trip. In one case, she helped a man get a job and work on finding housing. But then his situation worsened once again. 

“And I texted him and I’m like, OK what’s next. And he’s like, I’m not ready for this, I need psychological care…and I was really glad because I knew that he needed that, but it had to come from him, it couldn’t come from me,” Louis said. “And so he’s getting into some treatment.”

At one point when the man had a week gap in housing, Louis fronted for a motel for him to stay in so he didn’t have to go back to the street.

Louis said the vast majority of community members are encouraged by her volunteer effort, but some have had negative responses. 

“There’s one guy who drives by one of the camps that I serve. And he lives in the neighborhood. And he drives by once in while when I’m there. And he’s really angry telling me I’m enabling them,’ Louis said. 

She said it’s not about enabling, but about making sure people don’t starve. 

Recycled take out boxes donated by neighbors get used for food deliveries to homeless camps. May 12, 2021 (KOIN).

“A lot of us are so fortunate to have basic needs and so much more. And they’re not.”

Louis said she understands some issues neighbors have about the trash problem, but to help with that, she uses recycled take out containers to put the meals in and old milk jugs for water, donated by neighbors. 

The chef formerly ran three restaurants in Portland — Lincoln, Ray and Sunshine — and is the author of three cookbooks. 

You can find out more about the initiative, including how to donate to her Venmo or Amazon Wish List, on her website.  

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