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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Although they were forced to close their dining hall when the Eastern Townships went into a red zone, the Chaudronnée de l’Estrie is still seeing roughly 60 homeless people every day.

The Sherbrooke-based soup kitchen hands out hot meals to residents in need through a window behind the building. And while Chaudronnée will be closed on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, volunteers plan to supply a special dinner on Christmas Eve.

François Lemieux, a coordinator at Chaudronnée, said it is unfortunate they can’t open their dining hall, especially with everyone dealing with social isolation. But they were able to serve a classic holiday meal last week to lift people’s spirits.

“We did our traditional Christmas dinner last week with turkey, pie and other items that we served at the window,” said Lemieux. “We also gave out gifts and gift cards to grocery stores to help them out a little bit.”

The soup kitchen is able to stay operation thanks to a mix of government funding, federal, provincial and municipal, as well as grants and donations, he explained. The homeless population gets an opportunity to eat food and socialize.

“It’s a good thing we’re here because a lot of people we meet, if we weren’t here they wouldn’t have anything,” Lemieux said. “I’ve had people tell me that if it wasn’t for Chaudronnée, they’d be eating out of the garbage bin.”

While he hasn’t seen a dramatic difference in demeanour, Lemieux is beginning to see the effect isolation is having on all of the people he serves on a daily basis. They are all curious about the pandemic situation, he said, but it’s weighing on them.

Lemieux told The Record that he hasn’t had any trouble with people lining up outside. The weather is dropping, but there is never too much traffic. He added that everyone waiting for their meals respects the COVID-19 safety rules.

“We repeat it often but they all know the rules. We don’t really need to say anything anymore, even when they’re standing outside they keep a distance and wear masks,” Lemieux said, adding that volunteers provide masks when needed.

Moisson Estrie, another option for people struggling with food security in Sherbrooke, also plans to close briefly during the holidays. Doors will be locked on Dec. 24, 25 and 30, as well as Jan. 1.

General Manager Geneviève Côté said this year has been particularly taxing for everyone involved in the organization. The local food bank has been able to keep up with demand, but the demand is much higher than in previous years.

“We’ve seen a roughly 35 per cent increase and social isolation hasn’t been great, people’s mental health is a lot more fragile,” said Côté.

This is unprecedented, she explained, in a normal year their services increase by roughly 9 or 10 per cent. But this isn’t a normal year. People lost their jobs, were furloughed without any sign of their job starting up again, and in many cases, were evicted from their homes.

There was a lot of anger at first, Côté added, people waiting in line were impatient and upset. But it has gotten a lot better, according to the general manager, and residents are showing their appreciation for the work being done at Moisson.

“Knock on wood, but people recognize what we’re doing and they’re happy we’re here, so it motivates us more to help them out,” Côté said.

The food bank works with a colour code system. If you live alone you’re green, she said, if you’re a couple you’re yellow, a family is blue and a large family is lilac. And if people don’t want an item, they simply don’t take it; they can’t take double of another item.

However, due to the pandemic, Côté said they created pre-sorted holiday boxes for people looking to get in and out of the building in a timely manner. This isn’t her favourite option, though, as it takes away a person’s freedom of choice.

“We’re in a red zone, so we have a limited number of people allowed in the building, but I’m not a big fan of this; I want people to choose what they want in their baskets,” said Côté.

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