Uncertainty surrounding CHAZ forces Community Lunch to leave

Seattle, Wa. Community Lunch on Capitol Hill is an institution. The organization, which runs a program dedicated to providing meals to anyone in need, has been helping those experiencing homelessness or food insecurity since it first opened its doors in 1985. Until this week Community Lunch had been operating out of the Central Lutheran Church on 11th Avenue directly opposite Cal Anderson Park, which allowed guests to pick up their meals and eat in a relaxed and socially distanced environment. Now, however, the protest zone on Capitol Hill known as CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) has forced Community Lunch, and it’s guests, to leave the location. 

Jeff Wolcott, the Executive Director of Community Lunch, explained the decision. “We had a very positive experience when we started with the Black Lives Matter movement.” He said, noting that at the beginning of the protests they’d extended their hours to provide water and snack service for protestors. “But as the protests morphed into the CHAZ or the CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) we became more concerned with the safety of our staff and volunteers and guests.” 

What was a concern became a reality Tuesday, when emergency services refused to respond to a guest undergoing a violent medical emergency. The proximity of Central Lutheran to the CHAZ prevents police from serving the area, and with EMS unwilling to respond without an escort, Wolcott was left with the impossible option of transporting the guest several blocks before emergency responders would render assistance. 

Central Lutheran had become the location of choice during Covid because of the amenities provided by the public space, but with the park all but covered in tents and the area no longer safe the organization was facing the reality of moving back to a less ideal location. The Tuesday incident was the last straw, and the next morning the Community Lunch staff packed their equipment and moved to All Pilgrims Christian Church, a few blocks away. The location, on busy Broadway Avenue, has limited outdoor space, a requirement for serving meals due to the Covid crisis, and no park for guests to eat in while maintaining the appropriate distance.

The All Pilgrims Community Lunch Service (photo Jeff Wolcott/ Community Lunch)

            Not all guests are upset with this development, however. Jerome Smith is actually happier with the meals being further from the CHAZ. Smith says he’s been coming to Community Lunch since 1998, and relies on the meals to help make up the difference between the food stamps he receives and the amount of food he actually needs to eat. “[Community Lunch] is important to me because it prevents me from having to go in to stores and steal”, he explained. 

Smith has been avoiding Central Lutheran, and didn’t want to talk about his CHOP experiences on record, but the return of the All Pilgrims service was a welcome development, if not entirely ideal. “It’s a little inconvenient to come all the way over to this church” he explained “but it’s not that bad.”

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