Around the corner from a bus stop in North Seattle and down a wide alley is a nondescript white door many walk past without wondering what’s inside. I would have done the same, except on this day I had an appointment with Urban Hands, a nonprofit built around caring for the marginalized in Seattle, primarily by providing meals for the homeless and job opportunities for those in need of a second chance.
I had heard about Urban Hands through my friend Eddie Wang (organizer of the Sleepless in Seattle campaign) and was intrigued to learn the “who, what, and how” behind their use of for-profit businesses to impact the lives of Seattle’s most marginalized. So with my curiosity piqued, they became my first social impact feature for the “Seek the Good” project.
THE WHO: Urban Hands was established in 2009 (though the work started in 2007) as a branch off of a Seattle catering company, Upper Crust (est. 1984), and in collaboration with their for-profit vegan food company, Harbor Creek Farms. In a way, Urban Hands can be considered the “heart and soul” of these three organizations because of the way it enables the socially-driven mission for each company to be carried out.
THE WHAT: This may come as a shock, but while Seattle is the 23rd largest city in the U.S., we have 4th largest homeless population in the country behind Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York. The people in this community not only need shelter, but also fresh meals. According to the Meals Partnership Coalition’s research, Seattle falls short 2.5 million prepared meals each year. Then we also have to consider the need for job training and work opportunities for homeless individuals and those coming out of jail or from being institutionalized. Put simply, King County is a big mess when it comes to addressing and preventing homelessness.
THE HOW: Urban Hands, in cooperation with Upper Crust and Harbor Creek Farms, is stepping in to help meet this enormous need by strategically partnering with existing nonprofits to equip and empower them to cultivate change in the lives of the people they work by providing meals.
Want some hard-hitting numbers? Between 2007 and 2015 over 165,000 meals have been served thanks to Urban Hands. This is because Urban Hands believe in the power of a hot meal to bring people together and build community. For them, addressing homelessness is not just about putting food in front of someone in need, but about making them feel known.
As of now Urban Hands partners with eight different local organizations. One example of how they contribute to their partnerships is with “DADS,” a program that helps reconnect fathers with their kids after being in prison. Urban Hands supports their work by providing all the food—a huge draw for bringing both fathers and kids together for the meetings.
And it doesn’t stop there. Beyond providing meals across the greater Puget Sound area through partnerships and on their own, they also offer job training for individuals who are either just coming out of prison, have been previously institutionalized, or are currently homeless. These are people who face significant hurdles that prevent them from getting work—and more importantly, they are people in need of the second chance few organizations are willing to offer.
Joey DeYoung, the Executive Director of Urban Hands explains, “As a society we tend to forget about people, especially those on the margins, and we miss out on the connection that happens when you have a relationship with someone for the long haul. What I love about Urban Hands is how we use food as the vehicle that drives and enables us to pursue those relationships.”
One employee, Greg Adams has been with Urban Hands/Upper Crust/Harbor Creek Farms for three years. Just last week he celebrated his final day of probation, a major milestone after a difficult past.
“When I came here I had some ‘issues’ that I was able to overcome,” he laughs, “and Urban Hands/Upper Crust gave me an opportunity to get some of this stuff behind me and make the most of a second chance.”
Coming from extreme poverty, Greg understands what it is like to go hungry, so when given the opportunity to feed someone in a similar situation he notes, “It’s a blessing.”
According to the guys in the kitchen, there are probably 2-3 hungry people who come by the backdoor of the kitchen daily. Greg says of Urban Hand’s unique response, “In some places if somebody hungry comes by, well, they’re just out of luck because if you don’t have money, you got to get out! And so I feel blessed to be here and to be able to say, ‘hold on, let me get you something.’ It just feels good inside.”
As I heard stories about feeding women and children who come to their kitchen door looking for a meal or of a man who shed tears of gratitude for the kindness he received, I saw the men I was speaking to, in spite of their pasts, as inspirations.
After talking with the two founders, Don Platt and Jim Lustig, and the tireless men who run the show in the kitchens, I witnessed how “breaking bread” with one another is central to how Urban Hands operates.
This organization is run, not by a handful of philanthropic individuals, but by a family of people working in an environment built from second chances, hard work, and hope. One employee, Josh King, came all the way from Chicago to work with this group of people. He told me, “It’s a family business,” even though none of them are related by blood. This is a place where laughter, community and meals are shared – and where lives are changed.
So, dear reader, are you wondering how you can get involved?
As Urban Hands continues to expand here are some simple ways volunteers can help…
1.) Prep and work with the donated food: Urban Hands currently lacks the manpower and time to take full advantage of all the donated food. They currently try to donate any surplus food to other community-based non-profit organizations like the Union Gospel Mission, but with your help they can use it themselves for meals.
2.) Volunteer to help deliver meals: Have an hour or two to drive around? With some help delivering meals to the different organizations they partner with, Urban Hands could effectively extend their programs to more organizations that need meals. If interested, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
3.) Support their mission by supporting their businesses: You can buy food made by Harbor Creek Farms across the Northwest, most notably in Whole Foods stores. You can also support their catering business, Upper Crust, by choosing them to provide food for your event or business.
When I asked Don what keeps him focused and engaged in reaching out to this often overlooked part of Seattle’s population, he replied: “What motivates me is the great need out there. The hunger is astounding and we have the resources and energy to help. I started doing it years ago because I wanted to do something to help people.”
It’s pretty clear that after all these years this passion hasn’t faded.