Story and photos by Calvin Pynn, contributor
From outside, the dark red bricks and scarlet facade of what used to be Red Front Supermarket are unchanged, and the sign bearing the name of the grocery store, which closed last spring, still looms over Chicago Avenue.
Inside, though, is a completely different sight than what anyone who had shopped at Red Front for more than 60 years would recognize. In the entrance, bags of donated clothes are piled where the teddy bear claw machine and free newspaper racks stood. The checkout counters have been replaced with shelves stocked with hygiene items and other essentials, while 45 beds extend across what once were grocery aisles.
This will be Red Front’s new look for the next six months, while the local interfaith organization Open Doors operates a low-barrier homeless shelter in the building through the winter. It began hosting people at Red Front on Thursday, Nov. 5, just one week after Open Doors announced that it would repurpose the building.
According to Executive Director Joel Ballew, the organization had explored traditional options for hosting its shelter this year, ranging from commercial spaces to churches. They discovered, however, that the empty supermarket would better allow for physical distancing and other health precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the things we ran into, talking with churches, is if we’re hosting shelter guests on a Saturday night and a church is meeting in person Sunday morning, there are space use considerations, there’s cleaning, and right now the guidelines are saying that, after buildings are clean, they have to basically sit vacant for so long. ” Ballew said.
The process to convert the store into a shelter meant clearing out every shelf and display case on the main floor. With the entire floor emptied, all 45 beds laid out in the space allow 64 square feet per person.
Next to the rows of beds are several dining tables, where Open Doors will serve a hot meal to guests at the shelter every night. Ballew said meals will be prepared offsite, as outfitting the building with a working kitchen would not be worth the effort in the temporary space.
“Once you have a kitchen, then you have to have an exhaust hood, then a range, and then inspections. It’s kind of one of those things where I don’t want to say it would be cost-prohibitive, we could probably work it out, but we’re only going to be here for six months,” Ballew said.
Open Doors operates a seasonal thermal shelter from the beginning of November until the end of April, when freezing overnight temperatures become less of a threat. Ballew said that the organization plans to eventually open a permanent facility, although it will likely not be in the former Red Front building.
“It’s a lot of space for us, too much space. It’s a large building ideally suited for a grocery store,” Ballew said.
Being a low-barrier shelter means Open Doors does not enforce some restrictions for guests that other shelters do, such as not allowing anyone dealing with substance abuse issues, or a gender-specific shelter. The only barrier, according to Shelter Director Ashley Robinson, is that guests have to be at least 18 years old.
“We believe that low barrier essentially means that everyone is deserving of shelter,” Robinson said.
While Ballew said the reaction to the shelter’s opening from residents of the surrounding neighborhood has been mostly positive, some have expressed concerns about having a homeless shelter nearby.
“We’ve heard those concerns, and I think it’s important from our perspective that we don’t write them off. We do everything we can to try and mitigate the risk,” Ballew said.
He pointed out that the differences between those seeking shelter and those housed in the neighborhoods nearby are minimal.
“Very few people choose to be homeless. Homelessness is, in many ways, a result of other things happening in people’s lives. And we recognize that is a reality, and we try to work with that as best we can,” Ballew said.
The primary concern Open Doors has heard from neighbors is about the shelter’s impact on local property values.
Cate Nelson lived near Red Front until 2019 when she lost her house. She is now living in an extended-stay hotel.
“We loved Red Front and all the employees there, my dog even walked in there once when he escaped,” Nelson recalled.
Beyond it being a resource for people who are homeless, the fact that Red Front’s building is being used also makes Nelson glad.
“Empty storefronts aren’t great for property values, either,” she said.
Shirley Wilbers, who lives down the street, said she doubts a shelter operating there temporarily would hurt property values.
“I think as long as agencies are there to help them with resources and they are in one place it’s a good thing. As for housing values – as long as they contribute to keeping the shelter area clean it should actually help the area,” Wilbers said.
While the shelter will only operate out of the former Red Front Building temporarily, the symbolism of a building that was once a rock of the community turning into a spot to help people experiencing homelessness is not lost on Ballew.
“I’m not the best person to wax eloquently about a grocery store, but when you think of Red Front as a grocery store, you think of it as a place where the community connects over some of the basics. When you think about what a family dinner table is and what it means, and the fact that this was a place that, that served the basics of those kinds of gathering points for our community. The fact that it’s in many ways still serving the community, it’s helping out people who don’t even have the basics of a family dinner table,” he said.
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