Don Minnix, a 58-year-old former roofer, was one of the first to sit at the table, eagerly picking up the white plastic spoon to eat the first mouthful of food he'd had in 24 hours.
It was lunch time at the Elks Lodge on Route 1 in Fairfax County, and slowly other homeless men and women joined Minnix for hot dog and bean stew with salad and white frosted cake. It was the only hot meal of the day for many who had shown up at the lodge.
"Last time I ate was here, yesterday," said Minnix, who has been homeless for three years and walks with a cane because of a leg injury. "I tried to bum some money for coffee and a doughnut, but I didn't have any luck. So this place, it's the only way I can eat."
Elks Lodge No. 758 opened its doors for lunch last week, providing temporary respite for the homeless after the county's first soup kitchen was forced to close last month.
Route One Community Kitchen, also known as ROCK, had been serving hot meals five nights a week at Woodlawn United Methodist Church just off Route 1 in Mount Vernon for a little over a year. But last fall, Gene Culbertson, the insurance-agent-turned-soup-kitchen coordinator, discovered that the church is not permitted to serve reheated food, which meant that he could no longer cook meals there.
Instead of risking a fine or even a possible arrest for violating county regulations, Culbertson persuaded the community kitchen's board of trustees to close the program and look for another site.
"It would have been nice if they could have stayed," said Alec Thomas, a member of Woodlawn's board of trustees. "But our kitchen isn't set up to county standards, so you couldn't use it to cook in."
Refurbishing the church kitchen to bring it up to county codes would have been too costly for the church. "They need a fire suppression and range exhaust system, which costs $35,000," Culbertson said. "It just wasn't possible to do what was needed."
The search for a new site has been daunting, Culbertson said, particularly because the group is looking for a facility with a commercial kitchen and a dining hall where hot meals could be served. Not many have been willing to lend their facilities to feed the homeless, he said.
"It didn't think it would be this hard," Culbertson said. "I had asked area churches with adequate facilities and they said no. I also asked civic groups and they said no, too. Then the Elks Lodge came through, but that's temporary."
At an emergency meeting last month, Elks Lodge directors agreed to provide their kitchen and a dining hall for the program until a permanent place can be found.
"The Elks Lodge had been donating a full-course meal on Fridays for about a year and when they heard about my situation they were shocked," Culbertson said. "But it's temporary. They serve lunch to their members and I'm interfering with their operation."
Although dozens of food pantries are scattered across the region and nonprofits and others give out food from vehicles or prepare meals for the homeless one night a week, the kitchen is the first for the county. In addition to the homeless, the kitchen serves low-income families.
Social workers say having a permanent kitchen is crucial to providing a larger goal of getting people to turn their lives around so that they are no longer dependent on handouts. In addition to providing food, Culbertson has talked diners into getting medical attention as well as enrolling in county-run detox programs.
"They just have such miserable lives," Culbertson said. "One of the important things for these people is to be consistent. If you tell them you are going to do something, you have to do it, because they get their hopes dashed all the time."
Keron Mills, 36, a former fast-order cook who has been homeless for nine years, said she would have to panhandle for money or dig through trash cans for food if the kitchen were to close.
"It's still food, but I wouldn't like doing that," Mills said. "They treat me like a person here. I think a lot of it. I would hate to see them stop."
Minnix agreed as he scooped up the last morsel of stew from his bowl. He was one of about 15 diners at the Elks Lodge last Friday.
"Can I have some more?" he said. "It's delicious."
CAPTION: Keron Mills, left, waits as Don Minnix receives his lunch at Elks Lodge No. 758. The lodge is hosting the soup kitchen until another space is found.
CAPTION: On the menu at the soup kitchen this day, hot dog and bean stew.
CAPTION: Gene Culbertson dishes out food at the soup kitchen's temporary home in the Alexandria Elks Lodge.