Januari Coates and her army of volunteers are serious about serving up culinary works of art at the Thurman Brisben Homeless Shelter in Virginia.
"If I cook noodles, they have to be pretty on the plate. If you're on my volunteer line and you're slopping food, get off my line," Coates said with a laugh.
Her work doesn't stop here — under her nonprofit, Stepping with Leaders, she also fires up her personal food truck delivering meals, dry goods and air fryers to people across D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
The air fryers are for unhoused people who often take up residency in hotels that lack traditional stoves; the food is for anyone in need.
"We don't ask questions. You don't have to fill out a form, you don't have to do anything. You could be a government employee. We don't care, because what happened when they got furloughed? They needed food too," she recalled.
Today she's working to bring a sense of normalcy to the families calling the Brisben Center home this Christmas. The shelter services five jurisdictions in central Virginia, and it's the largest family shelter in the area.
"There's going to be a pajama party. There's going to be activities for the children to decorate cookies, they're going to read them stories," said Coates.
A new report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows homelessness at record levels, increasing 12% from 2022. The number of those newly homeless increased by 25% between 2021-2022.
The department points to changes in the rental housing market and the end of pandemic-related protections.
It's something Coates has noticed, too.
"You find that it's more homeowners now that are losing their homes and not necessarily the renters," she stated.
Coates can relate to the residents here, saying her first visit to the Brisben Center looked a lot different as a pregnant teen more than 20 years ago.
"I remember walking into the dorm. I remember my first night I was like, am I really homeless? Is this really what I'm, what my life looks like?" she recalled.
She says the team there helped her finish school. Today she's a realtor and a board member here at the Brisben Center and another area shelter, too. She's also bringing her adult children along for the ride, serving alongside her in the kitchen.
"I think that when people hear homeless shelter, they say, oh, they're poor, they don't want to work, they're this, they're that. And a lot of the time they look like me," she said.
"The main thing that families need is a support. Instead of asking, how did you get here … (ask) how can we help fix it? " she stated.
The "hand up" and not "hand out" approach is one Brisben says they've intentionally adopted, forgoing federal funding in the process.
"It starts with shelter, it starts off with the safety of shelter … and in building upon those, helping people to work on employment, work on a career path," explained Brisben Center CEO David Cooper.
"There's safety here. There's stability here. There's care here. But there is also accountability here. We want folks to be working on their own plans as best as they're capable so they can be successfully rehoused long-term," Cooper continued.
Coates says the various policies and "wrap-around "services continue with residents long after they leave, leading the shelter to rely on donations from the community and dedicated volunteers to keep it running.
Nearly everything at the facility is donated, from the meals to the Christmas presents to the time spent by volunteers.
Coates says it is her life's mission to show up here even if her circumstances in life have changed.
"Most people don't get to learn their purpose, like their God-given purpose. Like what do you put on this Earth to do? Mine is easy. I'm here to house, educate and feed God's people," she said with a smile.
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