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News / Clark County News

Vancouver Safe Stay Community nourished with meals prepared by volunteers

By Kelsey Turner, Columbian staff reporter
Published: September 3, 2022, 6:03am
5 Photos
Michelle Sanow, right, and her daughter, Amelia Picinich, center, brought dinner to the Safe Stay Community in Vancouver's North Image neighborhood Wednesday evening, with Outsiders Inn Shelter Peer Worker Crystal Drake, left. Sanow spent half the day preparing baked ziti, salad and steamed broccoli for the Safe Stay residents.
Michelle Sanow, right, and her daughter, Amelia Picinich, center, brought dinner to the Safe Stay Community in Vancouver's North Image neighborhood Wednesday evening, with Outsiders Inn Shelter Peer Worker Crystal Drake, left. Sanow spent half the day preparing baked ziti, salad and steamed broccoli for the Safe Stay residents. (Photos by James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Felida resident Michelle Sanow heard about the opening of Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community in December, she immediately wanted to know how she could help.

The Safe Stay Community, called The Outpost, is the city’s first pallet shelter community at 11400 N.E. 51st Circle. It features 20 shelters that house about 25 people experiencing homelessness. It also has trash receptacles, sanitation services, portable toilets, a small kitchen space, handwashing stations, a garden and access to supportive services.

Sanow reached out to The Outpost’s nonprofit operator, Outsiders Inn, which staffs the site 24/7. That’s how she became involved in The Outpost’s meal train, a communitywide effort to bring lunch and dinner to Outpost residents 365 days per year.

“I just thought, oh my goodness, here’s something that I can do to help the homeless. And I was happy to see the city of Vancouver doing something to transition people out of homelessness,” Sanow said. “It felt like a practical thing that we could do as a family. It’s just been super rewarding.”

Sanow, a mother of five, makes meals for The Outpost about once a month. She spent half the day cooking Wednesday, bringing baked ziti, salad, sauteed broccoli, French bread and chocolate chip cookies for the residents’ dinner.

“It seems like a lot of times the food that people donate to the homeless is lacking nutrition,” she said. “That’s a passion for me, too. I make sure that I make some really nutritious meals and make sure we get some fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Sanow is one of 177 volunteers who have signed up for The Outpost’s meal train. Since January, more than 12,000 individual meals have been served to residents. This comes out to nearly 1,000 volunteer hours spent preparing meals, said Ren Autrey, director of Outsiders Inn.

In addition to the Safe Stay Community, Outsiders Inn runs a year-round meal train providing dinners for residents at St. Paul Lutheran Church’s Men’s Shelter at 1309 Franklin St. in Vancouver. The nonprofit also provides meals for several Satellite Overflow Shelters during winter months.

“Each of our shelter locations, they do not have kitchen spaces,” Autrey said. “We can’t have a commercial kitchen because we’re basically an emergency shelter, and this is crisis mitigation. So our community is wrapping around us with their resources.”

The meal trains often experience a dip in volunteers during the summer months when people are on vacation, Autrey said. To ensure residents always have lunch and dinner, the Outsiders Inn meal team always has a backup meal ready.

“We almost always have a couple things in the freezer,” she said. “That way, we’re not scrambling at the last minute.”

Washing dishes can sometimes be a challenge at the shelters. The Outpost has just a small sink and with no hot water, so residents normally eat off paper plates. The staff is working on getting compostable dishes and silverware to be more environmentally friendly.

On Wednesday, Outpost resident Doc Kerr sat at a table in the tented communal kitchen eating a plate of Sanow’s baked ziti and broccoli. He held his dog, a Siberian husky black lab mix named Sam, on a leash by his side.

Kerr, who previously lived at the encampment where the Safe Stay is now, has been experiencing homelessness on and off for the past seven years. He eats meals brought by volunteers about four nights per week. Other days, he uses food stamps to shop at supermarkets or convenience stores. A microwave in The Outpost’s kitchen area also allows him to cook his own meals.

Kerr has never found it difficult to access quality food, he said, in part due to the consistency of volunteers delivering home-cooked meals. Even before The Outpost opened, some nearby residents and grassroots groups would drop off meals at the encampment where he used to live.

“There are a lot of good people out there,” he said.

In terms of feeding people who are homeless, it isn’t lack of food that’s the issue, but distribution, said Clark County Food Bank President Alan Hamilton. Because some people experiencing homelessness move around frequently, they can be hard to reach.


“There is enough food,” Hamilton said. “Getting it out into the community — that’s difficult.”

The combined meal distribution efforts of nonprofit organizations like Outsiders Inn, grassroots groups and individuals are helping bridge that gap.

A few weekends ago, the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church hosted a barbecue at The Outpost. “They had the works,” said Crystal Drake, an Outsiders Inn shelter peer worker who is part of the on-site staff. “There were lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles. The whole night.”

Sanow, meanwhile, is working to get the word out about the Outsiders Inn meal train to other potential volunteers. She recently asked a friend to start volunteering with her so they can cook meals together. Sometimes her 13-year-old daughter, Amelia Picinich, helps her cook.

Picinich came with her mom to The Outpost on Wednesday evening to drop off the baked ziti after her volleyball practice. “I just think about the community and everything, and about how everybody helps,” Picinich said. “And I just think when I’m older, I want to do something like this, too.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff reporter