Shara Washington begins most days the same way.
Around 9 a.m., she clears some space in her Bronzeville kitchen and sets out what to cook for the day.
“Cooking is my love language,” she said.
A few days a week, the spread is for paying customers that contact her catering business.
But just as often, it’s for a set of folks around town she calls “the friends” — people living on the streets of Chicago.
“I’m always trying to help the friends because I have a soft spot for them.”
Washington, 30, began cooking meals for homeless people in Chicago a few years ago. She said she prefers it to handing out money. But in the last year or so, she’s ramped up her efforts, cooking around 60 meals several days a week and delivering them to encampments on the Near West Side.
She funds the effort mostly out of her own pocket, but feels drawn to it to stay active and try out different dishes.
On Tuesday, she tried a new recipe, something she came up with playing around in the kitchen and which she hopes to add to her catering menu — chicken breasts sautéd in garlic and butter, served over broccoli and rice and topped with Alfredo sauce.
At an encampment under the Dan Ryan Expressway at Canalport Avenue, she passed out 14 meals, delivering them to individuals she called by name at their tents.
“She’s here basically every day,” Henry Thomas, 51, said, sitting in a chair between tents. “She’ll bring a nice tray of stuff, usually before sunset.”
The South Side native has lived in the encampment for about two years. He moved there from the south suburbs, where he was having trouble finding odd jobs or getting around on public transportation.
Since living here, Thomas has found contracting jobs and redeemed recyclables to get by. He’s saving for a cellphone.
“Around here, when we do make money, the restaurants can be pricey, and going to the grocery store — that’s a nice long bus ride,” he said.
Not everyone can cook, he said, and in the summer there’s no way to store the food.
John Stringer, 67, left his tent to eat his meal. Originally from Mississippi, Stringer said he’s lived in Chicago nearly all his life and on the street for most of it.
He used to make money redeeming recyclables, but now he uses a walker to get around.
“This is a big help. Otherwise, I’d be panhandling on the corner,” he said.
After Canalport, Washington said she would go to an encampment under the expressway at Roosevelt Road and then two more camps north of that. Between prepping, cooking and delivery, the venture takes about nine hours, and costs hundreds of dollars in groceries and gas.
She receives some help through donations, but mostly she’s on her own. She does it out of love for the people staying there. It helps them — and her, too, she said.
“It’s a coping method; cooking takes your mind off of whatever else is going on,” said Washington.
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.