Click to hear the narration of this blog post
In October 2019, I took three teenage boys and another senior teacher from my school (The British School of Amsterdam) to Cooking in Another Kitchen (Koken in een andere keuken) at De Stoelen Project, in Amsterdam Oud West. This involved cooking for 55 people at what is said to be the best (most effective and sought after) homeless shelter in Amsterdam. Each week, through the open season, homeless people queue up outside of the shelter on a set day, to request tickets to enable them to stay a few nights at the shelter. A night at De Stoelen Project comes with a cooked meal, a safe place indoors to sleep and washroom facilities. The people who receive tickets are only allowed a few days per month at the shelter, to allow for a rotation of visitors. The tickets are in great demand each week.
I heard about De Stoelen Project several years ago when Henny Heijmans, the project leader, came to speak at my River of Herbs evening at Pakhuis de Zwijger. I am sorry to say it took this long to actually book a date and volunteer there but, having been there once I intend to return often and with gifts.
The day made a big impression on us all. It began by our small group traveling to the project from school. The Stoelen Project is located under the multi-story car park on Marnixstraat. We checked out the kitchen facilities and our shopping list with our Stoelen Project coordinator, Mark, and then headed off to an Albert Heijn supermarket. They kindly donated all of the pasta for our menu. Then off to the Yakhlaf supermarket on Vlugtlaan, which kindly gave us an incredible price on everything else for the meal. We were advised by the project to budget about €200 to be able to feed 55 people. I think we spent approximately €70, thanks to the generosity of Albert Heijn Museumplein and Yakhlaf Supermarket.
After shopping, we returned to the Stoelen Project and set to work; cleaning veg, chopping and cooking the food. The project does provide menu ideas and clear guidance on the quantities of ingredients that volunteers will need but the boys in our group had pre-planned the following menu:
Baked apples with cinnamon
They did a great job and created a really tasty and nutritious meal.
The day was packed, purposeful and a lot of fun. We were able to serve our meal to the “visitors” as we got all of our washing up done pretty quickly and the cooking was well-timed. Serving up in the dining hall (which doubles as the night shelter) was probably the most impressionable part of the day. The visitors who came to the shelter that evening to eat were of all ages and backgrounds. The atmosphere was extremely calm and I certainly felt very humbled by both the regular volunteers’ commitment and the genuine need of the visitors for a place of sanctuary.
We learned from one of the regular volunteers, Eva, how close many Amsterdammers are to being homeless. In some cases, all it took to become homeless was a family breakup or an unexpected redundancy. So many of us are just a few missed paycheques away from homelessness.
It is still difficult for me to write about this as I clearly remember feeling so ridiculously lucky to be taking a warm tram home that night; Traveling to a safe home, in a safe neighborhood. Knowing that I could change out of my clothes without fear of harassment. Knowing I would stay warm that night, and the next night. Knowing what time I would wake up tomorrow and where I would be heading after breakfast. Knowing I had clean clothes to put on. Knowing I could shower. Knowing I would eat well. Knowing that the law is basically on my side, I have rights and am fundamentally safe and loved.
My daily concerns are minuscule compared to those of the visitors at De Stoelen Project.
The Homeless Issue
No one knows exactly how many people are homeless in Amsterdam. Apparently, there are enough beds for each homeless person here to be off the streets at night, so they have a dry place to sleep. But those beds are not available year-round and there are not enough. Drunkenness, theft, drug use, screaming, agitation and sexual abuse are common reasons for homeless people choosing not to visit the shelters. This is a complex and uncomfortable issue for society.
Close to home
One of my great-uncles was homeless in the UK. I remember meeting him once when I was young – such a loved, respected and intelligent man. I don’t know why he stepped out of regular society and lived as a man of the road. Perhaps he had some mental health issues, as do many homeless people. I doubt that I will ever know why his life took that turn but I am sure it was not a simple decision. When I was about 8 years old, he came to our home in Bristol out of the blue one day to see my mum, his niece, and her young family. It is a long time ago but I clearly remember how we wanted to shower him with love, shelter, food and anything he needed but he didn’t want it. Or he just couldn’t face it. For whatever reason, he needed to go and so he went. I never saw him again.
We all know that times have changed and so have some of the reasons for increased homelessness but every homeless person has a family somewhere and reasons which prevent them to returning home.
Spread the word
In January, my volunteering group is going to give an assembly at school about our day at the project. We want to share something of the experience with the other kids and teachers at school but mainly we want to raise funds and offer some practical assistance to De Stoelen Project. We asked the volunteers and leader what they most needed from us. Yes they can always use financial contributions but we were surprised to learn that they would really appreciate the following items:
The Project Needs:
Brand new men’s underwear
Brand new men’s socks
No Beans, Please!
We asked about the foods that other groups choose to cook up when they take a turn at catering for the 55 ever-changing visitors. Apparently, most groups try to keep things cheap and nutritious but this generally means beans on the menu. Now beans and rice, or chili and rice sounds rather good to me but as Eva explained, beans are so effective at getting the gut moving, that the visitors need to stay near to a WC for the day following the meal. This is a big problem for homeless people. I certainly have not seen many homeless people lining up for a public loo and I can’t imagine them getting into the loos in shops and restaurants. So, the advice of Eva and Mark was to keep meals bean-free, please! Keep it simple, tasty and nutritious.
Grow and Donate Fresh Herbs
I asked if they would like fresh herbs and the unequivocal response was, Yes, please! So here is the second part of my appeal. Come spring 2020, I would love for Urban Herbology readers, walkers and apprentices to consider gifting not only new undies and toothcare to De Stoelen Project but also to grow simple, well-known herbs in pots for the project. I want us to supply them with fresh herb pots every week – Basil, Parsley, Mint and other familiar, easy to use culinary herbs. The herbs need to be familiar because the teams who run the kitchen each day are not necessarily skilled cooks or herbologists! And, really unusual tastes are going to make the food taste odd to the visitors, so they may not feel able to eat it. Simple herbs which the volunteers can throw into the mix will boost available nutrients for the visitors, liven up the meals and add extra love to each plate. What a gift that would be. If we get loads of donated herb pots, there could even be one per table in the dining room, for the visitors to pluck from and add to their own food.
Book a date
Here is the agenda link for Keuken in een Anderen Keuken. Book a date. You need a small group of friends or colleagues. (The website has English pages too). The kitchen is great. It is new, has industrial-sized pans and apparatus and accommodates 3-4 cooks. You also need about €200 to buy your menu. I suggest you raise that money, get a good deal on the ingredients and donate the rest of the money to the project. The Stoelen Project has salt, pepper, some dried herbs and so on, in the kitchen. You can check specifics and leftovers from previous groups (such as cinnamon which we needed) when you arrive – before shopping.
If you like this idea and want to get involved, please share this post with your network and keep in contact through the comment box below. If there is plenty of interest and support we could be delivering fresh herb plants and the other items regularly.
Let’s try to stock De Stoelen Project (and homeless shelters everywhere) with as many fresh herbs, clean socks, underwear and personal care items as they can handle!
If you book a date at Cooking in Another Kitchen, I would also love to hear about it!
Wishing You All A Cool Yule And A Happy, Healthy New Year!
Update 26/12/19: Thanks for the positive feedback since I published this post yesterday. One person that I heard from, tells me that De Stoelen Project also desperately need extra volunteers to sleep over at the project. The commitment is apparently two nights a month through the season that it is open. For details, please contact De Stoelen Project directly.