For the past six weeks, a SoMa queer bar that's better known for raunchy theme nights and its storied past in the leather community temporarily turned into a food pantry serving LGBTQ seniors and a group of unemployed nightlife workers around the city who found themselves running out of money.
On Friday, Powerhouse Bar on Folsom and Dore will reopen for outdoor drinks along with many other restaurants and bars around the city now that the holiday-season stay-at-home orders have been lifted. But since mid-December, Powerhouse temporarily transformed into SoMa Food Pantry, a.k.a. Folsom Feeders, using crowdfunding to provide two hot meals and a bag of groceries to dozens of individuals and households who had suddenly landed in a state of food insecurity.
Organizer Carlton Paul, the manager of the bar, says that the idea came together one night in December just after the latest lockdown orders came down. Local drag queen Lady Bear (a.k.a. Brian Entler) was talking with chef Cory Armenta (Hecho) about what to do about all the people they knew whose unemployment benefits were running out just as the city was facing yet another shutdown.
"We launched a Facebook donation drive and we had $10,000 within a few days," Paul says. "That first week, just before Christmas, we put together 40 bags of groceries and made 150 hot meals. And this week we're up to 114 bags — each week we've added more names."
Paul says that the group — which includes support from Powerhouse owner Paul Langley, who gave them use of the space, and volunteer help from Todd Barket, Kevin Hoskins, Tracii Chambers, Randy Maupin, and Stephan Garault, along with Armenta's cooking — has targeted bartenders, hairdressers, and other people out of work who have never accessed food pantries or city services before. They've also been serving a group of leathermen over the age of 65 who were part of the Powerhouse community, as well as anyone else who they found through Facebook and word of mouth who found themselves suddenly in need. (Paul's husband is former International Mr. Leather Andy Cross, and he says, "We both feel like elders in the leather community, and that sense of community drove my commitment to get our members fed.")
In total they raised $18,800 and spent a bit more than that, and Monday was the final day for fundraising as well as the last shopping trip for groceries. Last week, the group delivered 270 hot meals, which included a meaty gumbo, and a vegetarian black-eyed pea soup.
Throughout the six weeks of packing bags, deliveries, and organizing, Paul says he's spoken to dozens of people, some whom he's known well over the years and some whom he hasn't, and many of whom were embarrassed to be reaching out for help. And while other efforts like the SF Queer Nightlife Fund did great work to raise money for out-of-work bar employees last year, the need was acute again by the time winter arrived.
"I've gotten a real glimpse of what's going on in San Francisco," Paul says. "The average gay 20-something is struggling right now."
Paul says he, himself, was struggling, having worked nearly every week of his adult life and then suddenly having the pandemic thrust him into months of sitting at home.
"I'm 49 years old and I've never once filed for unemployment," he says. "I've always had jobs and bartended and worked all the time."
But the experience he was having was being repeated all around him, among people with less stability and less money in the bank.
"I was in a deep depression in December, and all I could think about was my own problems, and this experience has opened my eyes in ways that are really profound," Paul says. "I was always more of a moderate, politically, but now I'm seeing just how much need is out there when a crisis hits, and how things need to change."
He adds that for this SoMa Food Pantry, the gap being filled was a particular one — people who were not used to being food insecure, and people who had never been and were not currently homeless. "Nobody on our list has ever been to a food pantry, and most of them all had jobs a year ago."
In the case of one person newly on the list who texted last week asking when his grocery bag might arrive, Paul says that he had yet another gut-punch when he responded perhaps a bit too tersely that it was on its way. The young man texted back, apologetic for bothering him, and saying that he was staring down a bag of dog food that he'd purchased with his last $10, wondering if he would need to be sharing it with his dog this week.
As for what happens now that the bar is reopening, Paul hopes that everyone they've been helping who still needs ongoing help with food will understand that there are city and non-profit resources they can tap — and that they shouldn't be afraid to. (The SF-Marin Food Bank is a big one, and they have set up pop-up food pantries throughout the city during the pandemic.)
"I have mixed emotions," he says, even though he's glad the business is getting to reopen — in partnership with nearby Azucar Lounge, who's providing food. "The food insecurity in San Francisco is not going away this week. We met our goal, we wanted to do a temporary food pantry and address the needs of this small group over the holidays. But that doesn't meant that these 114 families have the food or money to get by after our last delivery tomorrow."
But the project, however temporary, filled a need for Paul and the other volunteers as well, who would have otherwise had little to do in the last six weeks.
"It's been really powerful for my heart," he says. "Being able to be of use after sitting on my couch for many months. It made a huge difference in my head."
He adds, "We haven't cured cancer, but we have been of use."