Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Scott Leysath, The Sporting Chef, Has Helped Feed Tens Of Thousands Of People With The Hunt.Fish.Feed Program

Assembling a group of volunteers, most of whom have never worked in a kitchen or spent any time in a shelter, and feeding several hundred appreciative hungry people is both rewarding and sad. You feel for the folks who you’ve just fed, but there is some satisfaction in knowing that you were able to help out the people who feed them every day. Many of the volunteers end up making a promise to return to the shelter to help out in the future.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Leysath, aka The Sporting Chef.

Scott Leysath, former chain and independent restaurateur, now TV host of two cooking shows featuring fish and game on Sportsman Channel — “The Sporting Chef” and “Dead Meat.” For the past 12 years, Scott Leysath has been the Executive Chef for Sportsman Channel’s Hunt.Fish.Feed. program. They utilize renewable, high-protein resources like venison, salmon and wild boar to feed the nation’s homeless and hungry as well as military personnel and their families and encourage hunters and anglers to do the same in their communities.

Thank you so much for joining us Scott! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I know it sounds crazy, but my parents would often leave me home during my high school years and go away for a week or two. Not being too responsible, my friends would hang out at our house and I would feed them. Oh sure, it might have gotten out of hand at times, but no one was hurt too badly. That’s how my interest in the culinary arts started.

My cooking career really started as a doorman in a high-volume casual theme bar and restaurant and eventually I became vice-president of the 33-unit chain. I co-owned a popular restaurant near Sacramento for seven years and a catering business for 10 years. I began what I refer to as my “so-called TV career” in 1999 on HGTV’s “Home Grown Cooking with Paul James.” I was the Executive Chef for 180 episodes, working both sides of the camera as the backstage chef and on-camera guest and regular contributor. I do miss the restaurant business, but not enough to do it again or to get a divorce in order to pursue my dream…or nightmare.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

I have always had a soft spot for the less fortunate, especially those who have been subjected to circumstances that would overwhelm anyone. I was invited to help out with my first Hunt.Fish.Feed. in Orlando 12+ years ago. After spending time with the facility and the folks we fed, I was hooked and knew that this is a worthy cause that both helps others and gives me a more clear perspective about what’s going on in the world.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

When the Great Recession hit in 2007/2008, I met people from all walks of life at shelters across the country. I’d listen to their stories about how they had jobs, were paying their rent and then there were no jobs. Many sold whatever possessions they had and never imagined that they would be without jobs or a place for their families to live. People who had good jobs, but were living paycheck to paycheck, were suddenly without a home. Of course, there were those who had alcohol and substance abuse problems, but I always wondered which came first — being homeless and hopeless, or getting hooked on drugs or alcohol. I soon realized that the problem exists in just about every sizable city in the country. The bigger the city, the larger the homeless population. Many cities did a “good” job of hiding homeless people in locations outside the mainstream, but as the number of homeless people grew, their visibility increased to city sidewalks where you couldn’t help but notice. The Hunt.Fish.Feed. event that had the most impact on me early on was at Skid Row in Los Angeles. We fed a couple thousand hungry folks who are fed by some group every single day, a monumental undertaking.

There are those people who just prefer to live “off the grid” and don’t want to be responsible to or for anyone other than themselves. It’s a lifestyle choice. They know where to get a free meal in any city and they just want to be left alone.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

There is not one circumstance that puts people on the street. Drugs and alcohol are a major problem and many food providers will not serve you, at least not indoors, when it appears that a person is drunk or high on something. Mental illness is obviously a problem. Many of the people who were formerly institutionalized are now living on the street fending for themselves. And then there are those who lost jobs, families or experienced horrifying tragedies that they couldn’t overcome either physically or mentally. Unless you’re living it, it’s hard probably best not to pass judgment.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

When you’re kicked out of your 1-room tenement apartment with no job and no friends or relatives to stay with, the options are dismal. There is no place to go besides a shelter or the street. You have no car, marketable skill and minimal education.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

Without exception, every shelter manager I’ve spoken with has told me not to give them money. That might help you feel better about yourself, but it usually just enables the homeless person to buy drugs or alcohol. If you feel the need to help, contribute directly to a shelter. Through their connections, they can make your donation dollar go much farther and it will have a more positive impact on the homeless community. If you want to give someone a sandwich or a cup of coffee, that’s better than giving them cash.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

If you feel safe with the person and you want to do something for him or her, let them know that you will be happy to buy them something to eat or drink (non-alcoholic). Some will appreciate it and others just want the money to buy drugs or alcohol. It’s important that you feel safe and not threatened. Many homeless people have learned what it takes to get people to part with money. Most are passive, but others can become extremely aggressive. Keep your guard up. If you do not want to give them anything, that is your choice and no one should judge you for that. I think it’s best not to give someone something because you feel guilty about not being homeless. You should give because you want to help.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

The Hunt.Fish.Feed. program as fed tens of thousands of people over the past 12 years. Those of us with the program understand that we’re only in a location for one day. Our goal is to encourage local media to see what we’re doing to let the locals know that a shelter exists in their town. Shelters seems to get most of their support during the holidays when people with homes are in a more giving mood. Shelters need help every day, not just during the holidays.

We also encourage area hunters and anglers to contact churches, shelters and other outreach programs to see what they can do to help. The outdoor community is very generous when it comes to supporting their communities. Whether it is through donations of processed meat and fish or putting a group together to help serve food once a month. It all helps.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

COVID-19 has greatly affected the ability for Hunt.Fish.Feed program to get off the ground in 2020. Our first event was scheduled in April — and we had 5 or 6 scheduled through June that have been postponed, may be canceled. We are working on a potential event to help those on the front lines e.g. first responders, nurses, doctors. The issue we are running into is getting people to the location to help put together the packaged food, and then distributing it, in a manner with the least amount of contact.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Assembling a group of volunteers, most of whom have never worked in a kitchen or spent any time in a shelter, and feeding several hundred appreciative hungry people is both rewarding and sad. You feel for the folks who you’ve just fed, but there is some satisfaction in knowing that you were able to help out the people who feed them every day. Many of the volunteers end up making a promise to return to the shelter to help out in the future.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

Around 2009, I was working alongside a cook at one of the shelters. He told me about how he had a house and family prior to the financial crisis the year or two before. He had lost his construction job due to layoffs from lack of work. He sold whatever he could sell to pay the rent, but eventually lost whatever he had left, including the home he and his family lived in. He ended up at the shelter, a place he’d never imagined he would be, and started working in the kitchen in exchange for a place to sleep. His wife and two kids went to live with her parents, but the crash was tough on their marriage, so he didn’t join them. He developed his culinary skills at the shelter which led to a job in a restaurant nearby. He was still living at the shelter but, with the added income from the restaurant job, he was about to move into an apartment with the hopes of getting his family back together. Now I wish I had followed up to see how his plans worked out.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

1. Provide job training. Identify those people who want to break out of their homeless situation, but don’t have the skills to find and keep a job.

2. Teach life skills. Many of the homeless do not have the ability to manage money, their time or how to succeed in an unfamiliar world. Perhaps they grew up without much money, housing or parental guidance. Those of us who grew up in “normal” homes, went to school everyday and found jobs that would support us cannot imagine what it would be like to be raised without any of the things we take for granted.

3. Provide housing. Easy to write, much harder to implement. Most people do not want former homeless people living next door. To me, it makes sense to put people to work building their own homes or communities. When you have an investment in something, like helping to build your own place to live, I think it is more appreciated and respected.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

More states should allow hunters and anglers to donate processed fish and game. With the Hunt.Fish.Feed. program we’ve discovered that some states, like Virginia, rely on hunters to supply high-protein, sustainable meat for their shelters. The biggest supplier of meat to the shelters in Virginia come from donations of venison from Hunters for the Hungry. We’ve also been reprimanded more than once for utilizing processed fish and game to feed shelters because the meat was not USDA inspected.

I’m not familiar with which laws might help, but I’d prefer to keep the lawyers out of the problem-solving equation. But, of course, that’s not possible.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to know that you’ve just made an impact, albeit a small one, on the community and helped shed some light on how others can help. Everyone needs to experience a shelter meal, whether it’s helping with the preparation, serving or cleaning up afterward.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

Of course, but I’m not sure it’s 100% possible. We would have to solve a number of other social issues like drug and alcohol dependence, education and health care as well.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Homeless people are much like the rest of us. I have friends who drink too much, too.

2. Many of the homeless folks are real victims of some very unreal circumstances.

3. Do not give them money.

4. Some are mentally ill, but most are not. I’ve had some great conversations with people I’ve fed at shelters.

5. Many of them want to work, but for a number of reasons, they cannot…or will not seek employment.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to be on a national morning TV show to show how we can all help supply food and support for the homeless in our communities. Many people want to pretend that the homeless situation doesn’t exist or just avoid coming in contact with people or places where homeless people can be found. We tend to avoid contact with them. Instead, let’s find people who are willing to help them with life and job skills while providing them with a nutritional meal. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to homeless population to grow. It seems reasonable that we’d all prefer them to have jobs and give back to the community.

Others need to see how the outdoor community supports homeless outreach programs through their donations of processed, high-protein, sustainable fish and game as well as helping to prepare and serve the food.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You cannot control the behavior of others, but how you respond to it is what matters.” …or something like that. Not sure where I got it, but it does ring true for me. I can ignore the plight of the homeless person or do what I’m doing now with the Hunt.Fish.Feed. program.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs. I really admire what he’s doing to encourage young folks to learn skilled jobs outside of a four-year college degree. Some young people are disappointed or discouraged that they can’t do what it takes to get a college degree when many of them would be much better off pursuing a technical or industrial skill that will eventually pay better and fit their lifestyle better than a job that requires a degree. There are many other options.

How can our readers follow you online?

Check out TheSportingChef.Com for more than 400 recipes from wild game soups, main dishes, sauces and more. Plus, I share my behind-the-scenes shenanigans at @TheSportingChef on Instagram and Facebook.Com/TheSportingChef

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Scott Leysath, The Sporting Chef, Has Helped Feed Tens Of… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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