When Charlie Hughes started as a case manager at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen in 1989, the facility served only soup and sandwiches to its homeless clients.
In the next two-and-a-half decades, the Community Kitchen has expanded to serve three hot meals a day and offer showers, laundry facilities, a thrift store and respite care.
But all of that is just a hook to get people in, said the 64-year-old Hughes, who is retiring effective July 1.
The real goal, said incoming Director Jens Christensen, is to get homeless people housed.
Under Hughes' tenure, the Community Kitchen acquired its first three houses for permanent housing.
The kitchen also has assisted hundreds of homeless people in finding jobs. In 2013, of the 180 people enrolled in the jobs program, 139 graduated. Eighty-three percent of the graduates had income when they left, and the 41 people who did not graduate are still in the program, Hughes said. Eighty percent of graduates also went into permanent housing or programs for permanent housing, he said.
Helping people move toward housing is the satisfaction that keeps him excited about his job, he said.
"You would not believe the peace that comes from working this job," he said.
Hughes cites Faith Morgan, his food services supervisor, as an example of one of the kitchen's success stories.
Just seven years ago, she lived on the street with her daughter. Now Morgan has an apartment, and her 13-year-old daughter has a steady home life.
About half of the Community Kitchen's 50 employees were once homeless, Hughes said.
Area churches started the Community Kitchen in 1982. It moved into its 11th Street location in 1985 and started serving soup and sandwiches daily. Now the kitchen serves 190,000 meals a year.
Hughes' last day as executive director is July 1. Then Christensen, the kitchen's former assistant director, will take the reins. Christensen will return to the facility March 31 as interim director to work with Hughes and staff on a smooth transition. Hughes also will work as a consultant to the Community Kitchen for one year after retiring.
"The momentum that Charlie has created will not be lost," said Christensen, who worked at the kitchen for nearly 10 years before resigning in 2013 for a short stay as the vice president of development at WTCI-TV.
Like Hughes, Christensen also started at the Community Kitchen as a case manager. Having such a history lets the executive director understand every job in the kitchen, Hughes noted.
Meeting federal and state guidelines is important, but the director also has to know the people he works with, and he has to know the clients.
The Community Kitchen exists to help people transform their lives and live independently, Christensen said.
To determine what's next for the Community Kitchen, Christensen said he will ask the clients what they need. And he also wants to know what the community is willing to support.
For Hughes, the answer is easy.
The need for an emergency shelter has not gone away, said Hughes. The city needs more emergency shelters where people can go if they find themselves suddenly homeless, he said.
Hughes said he had no idea that the kitchen would become the place from where he retired, but since he started working there, he said the job has become his calling.
"I was fascinated with taking a homeless person and trying to get them a place to live," he said.
Hughes, a husband and father of two daughters, said in retirement he likely will spend more time with his two grandsons. And maybe there is another job for him on the horizon, he added.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-6431.