PROVO — It's 4 p.m. Thursday, and the first customers for dinner have started to filter into the Food & Care Coalition's downtown soup kitchen.
Six teenage volunteers are setting places with plastic cups and utensils. A large bowl of cabbage salad sits on the counter while soup bubbles in a large stockpot on the stove in the cramped kitchen. Before the meal is over, it will be standing room only.
"Just last night we fed 140 for dinner," says Kenneth Larsen, kitchen supervisor and one of six full-time employees for the coalition, as he shows off the facility's cramped freezer and produce cooler, both so full that he may have to turn away food donations that require refrigeration.
But that's all about to change. One day next week, after city inspectors give the final OK, Larsen will light the burners in a brand new, $11 million facility in Provo's East Bay industrial park and the county's homeless community will have a new place to break bread — but not to lay their heads, at least not yet.
For Brent Crane, executive director of the coalition since 1993, the new building is the realization of a longtime dream.
"What we are trying to do here is to set the table for our clientele in a place that is uplifting and positive, where we can help them deal with their problems," Crane said. "We have raised the bar with this building."
Crane and his staff are showing off the building this week. An open house was held Thursday night for members of the board of directors and other supporters of the coalition.
The public is invited to a grand opening today from 1 to 4 p.m. at the building, located at 299 E. 900 South.
Tours will continue next week after the final walk-through for the coalition's clients, the county's homeless who number around 200 at any given time, although that fluctuates on a daily basis.
The 36,000-square-foot facility, which sits on almost five acres of landscaped property, is not your traditional soup kitchen.
"It's an inspiring facility, and no one would guess it's a homeless shelter," Crane said. "We want our clients to reconnect with the community. Many of them are on the outside looking in."
In addition to the kitchen and dining area, the new facility will offer a full-service dental clinic, a licensed clinical therapist on staff, laundry and shower services, a barbershop and classrooms available to community groups. Most of the furnishings have been donated or offered to the coalition at a reduced cost.
Outside is a garden area where clients can help grow the food they will eat, a one-eighth of a mile walking path and a pavilion for outdoor meals.
The building's second floor will be dedicated to transitional living quarters for 12 women and 26 men — numbers that reflect the county's homeless population. But that space won't be completed until the coalition receives more donations — at least $400,000 to finish the rooms and $350,000 a year to operate the county's first homeless living quarters.
The center will not offer overnight sleeping facilities, but the transitional living quarters will represent a shift in homeless housing options for Utah County, which now offers vouchers for motel rooms for individuals who qualify.
Crane said the coalition, which operates almost exclusively on grants and donations, has taken a hit during the current economic crisis, losing $1.5 million in money that had been pledged in the past year.
But hopes are that once people see the new building and understand the positive philosophy behind the Food & Care Coalition, funds will be generated to finish the housing units.