New Haven’s Columbus House makes meals for homeless staying at hotels amid pandemic


NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH)– The pandemic has a lot of people spending a lot more time at home, but what about people who don’t have a home? News 8 looks at the big changes for the Columbus House homeless shelter over the past year

While many cooks are not working, Donna Santopietro is busier than ever.

“I do about 250 a day. 250 clients a day we cook for,” Santopietro said.

Those would be clients of Columbus House. The kitchen Santopietro runs is about the only busy part of the homeless shelter. The beds are empty.

“When COVID-19 first hit, we came over here,” said Columbus House client Jose Osorio. “They brought us over here.”

‘Here’ is an extended-stay hotel not far away. The shelter moved clients so they would only have to interact with a couple of roommates, instead of dozens.

“They give us food every day, and the food is really good. I mean, you can see it in my face,” Osorio said, with a laugh.

That food is thanks to Santopietro and her team.

“People are in such need, and I just love to cook, so it’s a great opportunity for me,” said Santopietro.

“We are in, basically, constant overdrive now,” said Margaret Middleton, the CEO of Columbus House.

Middleton knows Santopietro’s plate is extra full. In the old days, clients had to leave the shelter for most of the day.

“Because we’re in the hotel, you stay there all day. We do breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Middleton explained. “You don’t leave in the middle of the day and go off anywhere, because there’s nowhere to go.”

Not only are they making all those extra meals, but packaging them separately to ship to the hotel. They are also doing that without the usual volunteers. COVID means they can’t crowd into the kitchen. They can donate food, however, and fortunately, they have been. Restaurants have been helping out, too. Including the Greek Olive and its owner, Tony Antonakis.

“The whole container is chicken, vegetables, and rice. It makes a perfect meal,” Antonakis explained, showing off a small plastic container.

The Greek Olive has been sending those perfect meals to the hotel every Tuesday. At first, that was thanks to a grant from millionaire and TV host Marcus Lemonis. Lemonis gave the Greek Olive $20,000 as part of his “plating change” program. That grant, however, has already been gobbled up.

“The program is still going on, but we are now depending on donations from whoever can support us, from $5 on up, to continue giving out to the shelters,” Antonakis explained.

That’s good news for Columbus House, since there’s no way to know how much longer the clients will be at the hotel, and Donna Santopietro could use the help.

“I miss the clients. I miss speaking to them,” Santopietro said. “I’m a good listener, so I hear their stories and it was very rewarding.”

Through her cooking, those clients know she still cares.

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