As restaurants across the state are forced to shutter, Boston’s homeless continue to line up for breakfast and dinner at the South End’s Pine Street Inn. Executive chef Frank van Overbeeke serves roughly 350 men and 125 women each day. Pine Street also contracts with detox centers, criminal justice facilities, and other shelters to provide thousands of meals daily.
“If you’re hungry and homeless, if you got kicked out, get in line. We feed you,” says van Overbeeke, who got his start in fine dining at restaurants such as Salamander and Pomodoro. “We don’t have the option to close.”
But now those lines are different. Now, he says, “People are scared.”
Even before COVID-19, he says, guests could get rambunctious during meal time.
“When you’re homeless, one of the few things that’s a plus in your life is your meals, especially your hot meal at dinner. People get wound up if it’s not perfect, if it’s not what you wanted. It’s one of the few things you have ownership of,” he says.
But now there’s a fresh element of uncertainty. Guests queue to have their temperature taken before stepping inside. If potential illness is detected, they’re diverted to dedicated shelters run by Boston Health Care for the Homeless and the Boston Public Health Commission.
If not, they line up for foods such as manicotti, lasagna, meatballs, and Salisbury steak — dishes that require less prep, says van Overbeeke, necessitating fewer interactions among kitchen workers.
When guests come in, he says, they’re concerned about germs and sanitation.
“Our staff has always been very aware of sanitary practices, long before the pandemic. But now everyone is hyperaware, especially the guests: ‘Did that person touch his face?’ They’re vocal, and we assure them. It’s fear. It’s nervousness. They’re scared,” he says.
There’s also the fear of what will happen if they do have a temperature or other symptoms.
“They wonder, ‘What will happen to me?’ I completely understand it. The average person, well, you can stay home. It’s boring, but you have a home. If you’re living on the street, what do you do? The city has set up shelters specifically for [coronavirus], but it’s scarier and more stressful. And they’re fully aware that they’re more likely to be exposed, because it’s not easy to social distance in a shelter,” he says.
Pine Street has expanded breakfast and dinner service from one hour to two to lessen congestion during mealtimes. Behind the scenes, van Overbeeke and his sous chef no longer overlap, to minimize contact. Menus have been streamlined. Pine Street runs a paid training program for homeless guests in transition, living in halfway houses and detox facilities, where they learn cooking basics and safe-serving techniques. Now, many are afraid to work. Some are in quarantine. Other Pine Street staffers have stepped in to become servers.
Van Overbeeke — who himself had to quarantine for a week — works 10 hours per day.
“I’m happy I can continue to work and happy that what we do is important and valuable. That’s humbling. It makes you proud of the job we do at Pine. This is when we step up,” he says.
Pine Street is accepting donations for a COVID-19 emergency fund at www.pinestreetinn.org.