DePaul student Kenneth Purnell strives to end homelessness—one ladle at a time
Riders on Chicago’s CTA train lines often fixate on their smartphones and avoid eye contact with individuals experiencing homelessness. DePaul student Kenneth Purnell responds with a more direct sort of feedback: soup.
When he’s not studying political science at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Purnell, a trained chef, carts five-gallon containers of soup to CTA rail stations twice weekly, ladling out 70 to 90 bowls to those in need of nourishment and compassion. Purnell, who’s transformed his efforts into a nonprofit business called Souper Heroes, has served more than 7,000 bowls since he started in summer 2020. Volunteers he has recruited receive his cooking advice and have helped expand production and distribution.
“I tell them don’t try to be Chef [Gordon] Ramsey—keep it simple,” says Purnell. “Don’t make it spicy, and a lot of people are particular about eating pork, so stick with beef and chicken.”
Purnell’s culinary charity initially sprang from his own personal misfortunes. He lost his job at a West Side mental health clinic shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic capsized the hospitality industry. He joined an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program around the same time, which encouraged volunteerism to “keep us focused,” says Purnell. “In July 2020, me and my mom started making and bringing bag lunches every Tuesday to feed people living in tents near Sacramento and Chicago avenues. I wanted to raise awareness about the homeless community in Chicago.”
Purnell’s efforts evolved as he began using mobile apps to request donations of clothing, blankets and tents for distribution in Chicago. While doing so, he connected with workers and volunteers from The Night Ministry. Purnell mentioned his idea to serve soup on CTA trains, and the organization invited him to join an outreach effort at a station on the South Side. Purnell has since shifted his operations to the West Side and Forest Park, closer to his home, but his collaboration with The Night Ministry continues.
He says helping people while they’re in transit is often more welcomed by recipients than visits to where they live.
“They know who I am and look forward to coming out on the nights I have soup,” says Purnell.
Purnell has become a familiar face and friend to those he regularly encounters. He says sharing his own struggles to overcome an addiction creates empathy and trust in conversations.
“When I speak to them, it’s not like I’m reading something out of a book. They know I’m not judging them, and it puts them at ease,” says Purnell. “Society treats homelessness like a sore that can be cured with a Band-Aid instead of taking the time to listen and just ask, ‘How is your day or week going?’”
Purnell says the stories of tragedy and trauma he hears inspire him to keep going.
“One lady was on disability and living with a family member who caught COVID and passed away. She was pushed out on the street and living on the train,” recalls Purnell. “She was hungry and in tears when I saw her one day at the Forest Park station. She said, ‘I prayed for you, and God sent you to me because I didn’t have anything to eat.’”
Purnell hopes that with grant funding, he can transform a former car wash into a facility to provide showers, haircuts and other services to help individuals experiencing homelessness reclaim their sense of self-worth and move past adversity.
“Simply helping to change someone’s appearance can remove the irrational fear others have,” says Purnell. “If I can change that, I can change the way people help the homeless community. One thing people don’t understand is that homelessness is a state of mind, not the circumstance of not having [shelter]. I’m going to love them so they love themselves.”
Purnell had considered pursuing a law degree with a specialization in real estate, but says he now wants to turn his attention full time to advocacy to end homelessness after he completes his undergraduate education.
Purnell’s efforts are an inspiring representation of the community service that is a cornerstone of DePaul’s Vincentian mission. They’re also a reminder that finding common ground with people pushed to the margins is needed every day of the year.
“There are only a few things we can do in life that feel good naturally, and eating is one of them,” says Purnell. “I also play spiritual music on my Bluetooth speaker while I’m feeding people. I see them close their eyes, vibe to the music, and I’m so proud I can bring them that good feeling because they have a hard life.”