Q&A with Frank van Overbeeke about working through the COVID-19 pandemic


Frank van Overbeeke is the Executive Chef at Pine Street Inn, a nonprofit organization that provides food, shelter and job training for the homeless. Van Overbeeke oversees the preparation of approximately 2700 meals a day, manages the delivery of food to over two dozen sites around Boston and runs a six-month program providing job training to the homeless, as well as individuals formerly in prison, rehabilitation, or detox centers. Van Overbeeke has continued to work through the COVID-19 pandemic.

How have things changed at Pine Street Inn since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak?
Now, clients all have to enter through a triage where people get checked for fever before they come in. At work, we’re down to only essential personnel. Even in food services, there are people—like those ordering, or those who work in administration—who can actually do most of their work from home. We are in the process of trying to limit “staff overlapping,” meaning that even if all of us are essential—we all have to be there—can we divide so that some of us are off while others are on? That way, if someone does get sick, they’re limiting the number of people they’ve come into contact with. We’ve also modified our menu slightly to require less prep, and we’ve started keeping our place open for lunch. We don’t want [people] to be wandering around, so we’re keeping the inn open for them.

From what you’ve observed, how has the pandemic impacted homeless individuals and families?
When everyone is told to shelter in place, what does that mean for a homeless person? “Shelter in place” to them means hanging around 300 other men, or 100 other women, which is defeating the point of social distancing. What’s also scary for these folks is that they just don’t have the access to medical care that most of us have. They don’t have savings in the bank. We actually expect to see our homeless population increase as people continue to try and manage unemployment and to struggle to pay the rent. When everyone’s only a couple of paychecks away from homelessness, it’s terrifying.

Have you noticed a change in people’s behavior?
People are scared. They’re nervous. A big part of what we’re doing is trying to reassure them that we’re doing everything we can to make sure they’re being kept safe. That’s the biggest change I see––the fear.

In your opinion, how well are local and state governments are handling the pandemic?
Everything I’ve seen so far here in Boston has been done really well. The [Pine Street Inn] leadership was immediately in contact with organizations like Boston Healthcare for the Homeless and the Boston Health Commission to make sure that we’re managing this whole pandemic properly. We’re set up with places to triage; the city is now opening a couple more shelters to manage what happens when folks do start testing positive in the shelters. We’re all playing it by ear, but I do have confidence in how it’s being handled.

What plans do you have looking forward?
We’re going to roll with the punches as we go. We’re trying to come up with contingency plans––for instance, what happens if our food supply is cut? That’s why we try to keep a month’s worth of food in our fridges. We have people on lists that we can call in to help us, in case we start losing staff who test positive. We fully expect that that’s quite a possibility. We just have to be ready.

An employee at the Pine Street Inn kitchen arranges meals before clients arrive. Van Overbeeke said that the Inn will remain open throughout the entirety of the outbreak.

Do you anticipate Pine Street Inn staying open regardless of how severe the outbreak gets?

Why is your work meaningful to you?
Even before the pandemic, my job has been meaningful to me. I worked my whole life in fine dining until 10 years ago, when I came to the Pine Street Inn. This job to me is much more satisfying. I’m providing food and sustenance to people who really, really need it, which you can especially see in situations like this. You realize that you’re the only thing that some of these people have before they don’t have anything. You’re that last line of defense for them.