Chicago man uses his past experience to help nurture those struggling with homelessness

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CHICAGO — He started serving soup to homeless camps in an effort to help achieve sobriety. Now this local leader is on a mission, enlisting volunteers and starting a non-profit organization to help those struggling with homelessness.

Kenneth Purnell is one of Chicago’s Very Own.

Chef Kenneth Purnell can be picky when it comes to choosing which homemade soup donations he’ll accept.

“You have people, they have what they call their grandmothers’ recipe and they will make soup, but I have soup makers who have no knowledge, so that’s when- where I provide my recipe,” Purnell said.

Twice a week, Purnell collects five gallons of soup from a “soup maker” and sets up a service station to feed those in need at the Forest Park Blue Line station.

“A lot of people depend on me. If I’m late, they’ll let me know I’m late. They’re waiting,” Purnell said.

A former head of a catering company, Purnell lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic and has fallen on hard times. Battling an alcohol addiction, he sought help.

“When you’re trying to find your way, you’ve done a lot of things that led you to alcoholism, it’s been suggested that you know, volunteer, go to meetings, do different things to try to help you with your downtime,” Purnell said.

He said the choice seemed obvious to him: to use his culinary talents to help others.

“I’m a chef, you know my job is to make food, I was like, ‘Hey, let me make some food and give it to people sleeping rough,'” Purnell said.

Just over a year ago, with just a small cart and a five-gallon jug, Purnell took to the streets to feed the hungry.

First settled at the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station, he eventually settled a little closer to his home in Forest Park.

Serving up to 100 people a night, Purnell, now a student at DePaul University, said he couldn’t meet the demand for soup on his own, so he reached out to social media for help.

Tiffany Bland is one of the many people who have offered to help.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t strive for the most nutritious meals we can,” Bland said.

Purnell uses this site to organize his soup gurus. Each cook pays for ingredients out of their own pocket, but additional supplies always cost money.

With Bland’s help, Purnell founded ‘Supper Heroes’a non-profit organization covering the costs of bowls and utensils.

Purnell said her journey has allowed her to form relationships with many people living on the streets of Chicago, with the goal of always going out of her way to be respectful.

Making soup and distributing it to others gave Purnell a purpose and a reason to stay sober.

“People ask me all the time, you have nothing, how do you help foreigners? I tell them when I was at my lowest, a stranger helped me out and I just want to reciprocate,” Purnell said.

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