Stone Soup: Serving up a Future

Originally posted on neighborhoodamerica.com

Hungry gourmands in Portland, Maine, head for the city’s Public Market at lunchtime for a bowl of hot soup and hunk of bread at Stone Soup. This popular stall in the busy, high-profile market has won several awards for its quality of service and food.

That’s something any business can be proud of. But for Stone Soup, there’s a special glee to the honors. The stall is operated by Prebel Street Community Outreach Center, as a source of funding and of jobs for Portland’s homeless population.

Prebel Street Center was established to provide a central location where public and private programs serving the city’s homeless and very low-income people could operate in a coordinated way.

Director Mark Swann says Prebel Street provides “everything but beds. We have a meal program here, breakfast and supper. We serve about 500 meals a day. We have a drop-in center that’s open all day. About 200 people come in. It’s a place to get warm or dry or to use the showers or to get clothes from our clothing bank or to use the telephone. We are the mailing address for about 300 people. A lot of basic stuff.”

Twenty-one agencies provide on-site or outreach services there. “Mental health agencies, substance abuse programs, psychiatric services youth services, legal services, AIDS education.” But few addressed the need for employment services and job training for the homeless.

“I think a lot of it was stereotyping,” Swann says. “There’s discomfort with working with the people we see.” Agencies that receive their funding based on how long people hold jobs have a hard time believing that someone living in a homeless shelter can be a reliable employee.

After years of frustration, Prebel Street decided to do it themselves. They looked for something that would work as a business while creating real real job opportunities for the people they wanted to train.

Market research showed that the food industry was a good bet. “It seemed that there were all kinds of jobs in that field. The food industry is a big one in this part of Maine. There are restaurants, seasonal stuff, nursing homes, hospitals.”

From the beginning, Swann’s people wanted to make their program self-sufficient. They didn’t want to get caught up in the often-constraining, limited, or unreliable funding net. “Running as a business, it gives you a great independence. You’re not worried about funding sources. You are really in charge of your own destiny.”

As a whole, that’s the policy for Prebel Street, which gets 60% of its funding from private and community sources. That’s impressive, since Portland’s population is only about 65,000.

“We looked at this as a model of social entrepreneurship, which is running a business as a business that has two bottom lines. The bottom line of making a profit, or at least breaking even, is the first, of course. The social bottom line with this program is to provide culinary arts training for homeless people.”

The culinary arts training program is a 12-week-long school that covers the basics of the food industry. Several days are spent on kitchen hygiene; one week is spent learning about baking, another about meat and meat preparation, another on using cutlery. All graduates pass the state certification program for kitchen hygiene. Swann says that gives them an edge when job-hunting, since all food operations in Maine must have one employee with that certification.

The last two weeks are spent in on-site, real-world internships. “We have four intern sites – a hotel, a nursing home, a restaurant, and Stone Soup at the Public Market. They go out and do a week at two different places and get some real work experience. We’ve had people get job offers from that.”

All of the students need more than just job training. “We do the training and work with people who are living in emergency shelters, who have a lot of problems, who have a lot of issues in their lives. While they are in the training program, we surround them with a lot of services and social work help. By the time the program has ended, every single person has gotten out of the shelter and into a housing situation.”

Twenty-eight people finished the 12-week sessions in the first year. Of those, most have jobs. The others have returned to school. Only one graduate is still job-hunting, but Swann still views that case as a success. “This man lived in the emergency shelter, literally on a cot, for seven years. He finished our training program and is in an apartment now. We haven’t gotten him a job yet, but his quality of life has improved dramatically.”

In its first year, Stone Soup finished with a slight profit, not completely self-supporting, but very close. Swann expects it to entirely pay its own way within 3 or 4 years.

The success of the stall at the Public Market has inspired Prebel Street to expand its culinary arts operations. A second Stone Soup location is being developed. This one will be more of a full-scale deli and café. Right now, the classes are held at the Outreach Center or at kitchens in nursing homes and other places where they can find space and a cooperative management. The move will make it easier to plan and operate efficiently.

“We’ll do the training on site there and be able to individualize the training program for the people involved.” It will also create more jobs for his clients.
Along with learning how to knead bread, the students get a life lesson, according to Swann. “We talk to the students about how we’re running this and how we’re funding this. We are a role model for self-sufficiency to the clients. We point out that we’re not depending on charity to pay for this. We’re working hard to make the program work. And that’s what they have to do, too, when they are looking for work or keeping a job. The people seem to get that. It seems to resonate with them. We’re walking it like we’re talking it.”

The Portland Public Market is a major economic development project for the city, using a lot of public and private funds to build and promote an updated version of a New England farmers market. It attracts and publicizes trendy wine and cheese stalls, high-end meat and fish vendors, and local dairy and produce sellers. Committing to a business operated and partially staffed by a social service organization was an act of faith by the city, one that Swann thinks has paid off well for everyone.

“It’s been an absolute dream for Prebel Street in terms of community awareness. We can say we are part of this community and we are trying to do something special here. We are doing it in the most public venue you can possibly think of in Portland, Maine. It’s been a great benefit to everyone.”
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