Homeless Population and Soup Kitchens

Homeless Population and Soup Kitchens

By: Serinna Bradfield, Corin Greene, Marilyn M, and Deborah Watman

Leroy, a forty-year-old soup kitchen guest simply says, “ I was hungry, somebody told me about this place, and I came. ” Erin was “rejected, and lonely” and came because she was hungry and “the food here is great. ” Michael is a former alcoholic and homeless, Susan is an unemployed single mother of five, and Walter is a poet. All of them, have walked down 9th avenue in the Chelsea Area, and stop to wait on the long line of people eager to enter the Holy Apostles Church. They are not looking to pray or connect spiritually. Leroy, Erin, Michael and Susan probably do not believe in the same religion or God. But as they wait on this long line, all of their stomachs would be rumbling. They are all hungry and looking forward to the hot meal that is waiting on the other side of those heavy doors.

The pews have all been removed and folding tables and chairs occupy the large empty space. Being the largest feeding program in New York City, The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen needs all the space it can get to serve over 1,200 people. The homepage of their website states their -‘mission is to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, seek justice for the homeless, and provide a sense of hope and opportunity to those in need.’ Certainly, they continue to live up to their mission statement, and while they may not be able to provide all that is necessary for the homeless, the beneficiaries and volunteers will agree that they live up to their mission statement.

After recognizing that an increasing amount of homeless people were living in the Chelsea neighborhood, and knocking on the church door for some support or warmth, Holy Apostles Church felt that something needed to be done. On October 22, 1982, the church officially opened their soup kitchen doors and already served its first 35 meals to the homeless people congregating in the streets. Now 27 years later the soup kitchen is still up and running and serving more meals than ever before. Open on holidays, through blizzards, and blackouts, the soup kitchen prides themselves on never missing a day. They welcome everyone, no questions asked, and provide enough food to help thousands survive.

A few weeks ago, I walked through Grand Central Station taking note of those who may have been homeless and may benefit from some of these soup kitchens. I noticed a man sitting at a table, with a pushcart and several bags next to him. Cautiously, I approached him and asked if he knew anything about the soup kitchens in NYC. “Holy Apostles” he said, and “as a matter of fact, I am writing stories with them.” How lucky, but probably not coincidental, that on a chilly Thursday evening in March, I would meet one of Holy Apostles Soup Kitchens writers, George Cousins.

Cousins is a member of a writing workshop at the soup kitchen in Holy Apostles, begun twenty years ago by notable author and journalist, Ian Frazier In “Hungry Minds”, a piece he wrote in 2008 for The New Yorker, Frazier articulates the experiences he has had working in the Soup Kitchen, and meeting so many of its beneficiaries. Simply put, Frazier noticed and appreciated the valuable work the soup kitchen was doing and wanted to take part. He explained that logically, “if you take any twelve hundred New Yorkers, naturally you’ll find a certain number of good musicians, skilled carpenters, gifted athletes, and so on; you’ll also come up with a small percentage who can really write.” And while many payed no attention to the workshop, over fourteen years, Frazier did meet with over four hundred writers.

 George is a soft spoken, smiling homeless man who does not like to ask people for money. Instead, each morning, he walks to St. Francis Soup Kitchen on West 16th street between 5th and 6th Avenue, to receive a cup of coffee and a donut. He then walks over to Holy Apostles for lunch, and some days, for writing. George says that there is plenty of food, and he enjoys going to Holy Apostles for the activities and discussions that go on there. I asked if he had any friends there, to which he replied yes, but “some have moved on to get jobs.”

George, though, continues to enjoy the services of the Soup Kitchen, and it is hard to say if he will look again for a job. In the meantime, he spends time writing in Grand Central Station, “where the police don’t bother you”. Frazier is no longer running the writing group, but what he has created continues to be an outlet for so many. The workshops provide many people with a much- needed goal that is more than staying warm and fed. It encourages the chance to stretch their imaginations or encapsulate their emotions.

I enjoy speaking to George, and thank him for his time. I left him flipping through his writings, as he searched for the perfect one to present at next week’s workshop. There was a special reading, and Ian Frazier was making a guest appearance.

A Day in the Kitchen

A typical day for the soup kitchen starts at 6:00am with the preparation of the meals.  The hefty meals are meant to sustain someone a full 24hrs, as some are unable to get another meal before then. The doors do not open until 10:30; meaning that it takes 4 ½ hours to prepare all of the meals and the large space, considerably fast for 1,200 meals. A typical meal includes some form of fruit, vegetable, meat (though they do have a vegetarian option) and bread.

The meals are supposed to be nutritionally balanced and proportioned. An example of a meal can be found on their website:

Escalloped Turkey Ham and Pasta Casserole (8 oz. portion)
Seasoned Sliced Carrots (3.5 ounce portion)
Broccoli Florets (3.5 ounce portion)
Sliced Peaches (6 ounce portion)
Bread and Butter
(3-4 slices per person)
Iced Tea
: For 1,150 Soup Kitchen Guests!

            While this may seem like a nice free meal, by no means does it provide proper nutritional value. According to the government’s current dietary guidelines, the average 31-50 year old moderately active man, needs about 2, 400 -2, 600 calories a day. With all the bread and butter, the meal could almost reach 1000 calories, which is certainly a heavy meal, but not a heavy diet. It may not be some people’s only meal of the day, but even so it is still not substantial enough to sustain a healthy diet. With soup kitchens providing less than half of the given amount, these 60,000 homeless people of New York City are surely going hungry. Furthermore, they will experience malnutrition.

About a year ago the public health research journal, Preventing Chronic Disease published a report on the “Nutritional Assessment of Free Meal Programs In San Francisco” by Dr. Courtney R. Lyles and her team. The researchers looked at 22 different meals and found that there was too much fat, too little fiber (less than 30% of daily recommended intake) average carbohydrates and protein. Years earlier, in 1990, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association published “Soup kitchen meals: and observation and nutrient analysis” and also found that the nutritional standards are not being met by New York City soup kitchens. Most probably, Holy Apostle was no exception, and while they still do not have the means (nor should they be expected to) to serve to the highest standards, the money including fruits and vegetables shows important health conscious efforts.

The soup kitchen receives donations for food, but still it costs around $2.2million a year to run. Most of the money is donated, and it would be difficult to receive even more money to pay for more expensive, healthier foods. While the money keeps the soup kitchen open, the volunteers keep the soup kitchens up and running.

In order to better serve their guests, the Holy Apostles Church Soup Kitchen works with outside services to help the homeless with things that they cannot necessarily help them with. These outside services include Project Renewal, The Urban Justice Center, and the Food Bank, among others. From these services the homeless are able to receive direct medical care three times a week, as well as help with legal needs, and with the process of applying for food stamps.

To understand more about the volunteers, whose work sustains the soup kitchen, I met with some of Holy Apostles devoted volunteers.

Monday March 24, 2014

It is a frigid, sunny early afternoon, past the 10:30 AM -12:30 PM time slot where guests can eat at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. I press the buzzer, but the speaker tells me that the volunteer coordinator is not here and that I cannot come inside. My trek from Queens College to the Chelsea area seems meaningless and I stand around, feeling like a loiterer. I think about the irony of the situation, how I came to learn more about the services of a soup kitchen, and instead am standing, shivering outside, thinking how many homeless people had stood by these doors, waiting to be warmed by the indoor heating and satiated by its food.

I turn around to see an elderly Caucasian woman using a walker to exit the church, and after introducing myself ask about her experience. I accompany her on her way home and ask her questions throughout. She wants to remain unnamed.

As a committed volunteer of 14 years, she felt that it was “very worthwhile to feed the hungry”. She found out about the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen when she started living in the Chelsea neighborhood. In the timespan of her 14 years of volunteering, she said, “Things haven’t changed at all. People still come for a hot meal, and the amounts are still very big.”

Depending on what job she is assigned, she sometimes spends time interacting with the guests. For example, sometimes she gives bread to the guests when they leave. Some of the guests are new, but some regular guests do come in daily. Upon asking her what she has learned from her experiences at the soup kitchen, she replies, “To not be poor. To be rich. To work when you’re young.”

It is clear that this woman is passionate about what she does, and knows that she is serving the common good. But she makes clear that receiving one hot cooked meal a day is not enough. Though she works in a place that is based on handouts, she encourages hard work, jobs, and salaries. The soup kitchen is only a flimsy Band-Aid, it satiates people for a few hours, gives them a warm place to go to, and sometimes a community to express their feelings and work on their writing. But at the end of the day, it is not a job, and it is not a home- it is not the solution to the homeless.

“You know it’s a little chilly out”, says Joseph, another middle-aged, White soup kitchen volunteer. Accustomed to sheltering people from the ever-present winter cold, he prefers to speak to me in the warm apartment building lobby. Joseph is a social worker living right next to Holy Apostles Church. His religion, Catholicism, has directly influenced him to volunteer because “it’s one of the Beatitudes to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” He realized how convenient it was to help out and almost ten years later, he is still volunteering, “Cuz there are a lot of people who are underemployed and homeless, and don’t have enough to live.”

In all those years, “some things have changed, some things have remained the same.” He continues to explain that guests used to receive unlimited meals within the 2 hours. But now they get 1 meal by 12 o’ clock, and then they get unlimited meals. Sometimes exceptions are made. Exceptions are made for the handicapped.”

Additionally, he provides an example of the changing situations with the customization of meals decreasing. He gives a hypothetical situation; “If our guests don’t want the green beans, we’d give him more potatoes…We don’t customize within each food group anymore.” The reduction of customizing meals conveys how the economy is getting worse with the homeless population in New York City reaching the highest levels since the Great Depression. However, the soup kitchen still offers vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals. Another changing element in the Holy Apostles soup kitchen is the technology; for example, volunteers are signing on the computer instead of signing on paper.

In his time span of volunteering, he regularly encounters consistent volunteers, but sometimes there are people from various countries that volunteer a couple days a week during the summertime. He guesses that approximately 15% percent of the volunteers are from the Chelsea area. Surprisingly, people from the 5 boroughs of New York City come volunteer. His regularity of volunteering depends on how much work he has. For example, he just lost one of his clients, so he’s volunteering more.

His experiences at Holy Apostles reinforced his head knowledge that there are people financially worse off than him. During holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, the conditions in soup kitchens are nicer because there are groups that play music. Joseph notes that around 5 years ago, a group put on a superb Christmas show. Sometimes the soup kitchen gets better-quality food like gourmet sandwiches and pastries from Ferraro’s. The soup kitchen receives most of their food donations during the holidays, and it sometimes gets them at other times during the year. Although the soup kitchen usually runs smoothly through the help of the volunteers, there are occasional fights among the guests.

In response to whether soup kitchens are serving the needs of the people and New York City, Joseph thinks that soup kitchens are doing the best they can since, the economic situation is increasingly getting worse, “so budgets are smaller, and the need is possibly greater.” After our informal interview, I thank him for his generous sharing of time.

Joseph was right about times being tough and that the need for soup kitchens has increased. Just this past November there was a shortage of food in the food banks of the city, after the government cut down on food stamps. In the article “After feds cut food stamps, city pantries went empty,”from Crain’s New York Business, Theresa Agovino states that ‘85% of the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens reported an increase in visitors in November 2013.’ The amount of people that were showing up to the soup kitchens had jumped up over 50% in some places. How can soup kitchens, such as the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, help the homeless when they run out of the materials that are needed to do so? The object is to help prevent homelessness not create more homeless situations.

The hungry homeless population undoubtedly needs and appreciates the services that Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen provides. Many relish the support and camaraderie that they cannot find on the streets occupied by millions, but find instead in the church. As Michael, one of the voices writing about the kitchen said, “the volunteers are so friendly. I stick around after lunch for yoga and movies.” Feeling less lonely but more “resilient and grateful”, Erin agrees, “Holy Apostles helps in more ways than offering food.” The soup kitchen surely provides the supportive and welcoming community that the homeless population needs. It provides them with casseroles and iced tea to quell the grumbling stomachs, and a heater to warm up. But there is no way that Holy Apostles can afford to feed 1, 200 people three wholly nutritious meals times a day. That would mean 3,600 meals a day, and a huge annual expense of $6.6 million dollars. Neither the city nor the church has the funds or system in place to completely support the 60,000 New Yorkers living on the streets. The city will provide temporary support, but in the end of the day, as the loyal volunteer clearly put it, you need to work “to not be poor.”

The Public’s View on Homelessness

When most people think of soup kitchens and food pantries, they think of homeless people. While they do make up a large percentage, not all of the people who utilize food pantries are homeless. Some are between jobs, or are unable to work. They are able to afford a place to live, but need a supplement to fulfill their nutritional needs because they do not have enough money to be able to afford both housing and food.

I interviewed Elena Turull, an Administrative Assistant at St. Nicholas of Tolentine RC Church, to find out more on this issue and other information about their food pantry.

According to Turull, around thirty years ago, the food pantry in St. Nicholas of Tolentine was started by people who felt that the lower class locals in the neighborhood needed the services that only a food pantry could provide. She is not sure if the opening of the food pantry brought about a change in the community, since she started working there as a receptionist 14 years ago.

For most of the week, the food pantry is only available to those that have a referral from a Social Services agency or a social worker, and the person must meet certain criteria in order to be eligible to receive food. “Cause our pantry is by referral, Monday to Friday, and then its non-referral from 9am to 12am on Thursdays, so we get a really big grouping on Thursday mornings – from the hospitals, from social workers, and by word of mouth, that they need it…those that can come in and get food.” On Thursday mornings, the pantry allows anyone to come to receive food, regardless of eligibility status, because of the higher volume of people on Thursdays than on any other day. Some people who utilize this service may not meet the eligibility criteria, and are using the food pantry as an extra supplement. Some have not gone through any social services agency, possibly out of fear or ignorance of the system, but would meet eligibility criteria if they were to be evaluated by a social worker. Additionally, the people who use the food pantry are regularly coming; Turull says, “We’re a stopover…well, I can’t say it’s not permanent because we get a lot of people that come for many, many, many years. They supplement themselves through us.”

Turull says that she has had the opportunity to personally know some of the guests, even though some are embarrassed about their situation and condition. Many do not interact with others. Other than the monthly banter the guests, volunteers, and workers, participate in, “they just get their food and they wanna leave.”

The fact that many people are embarrassed by the fact that they need supplemental nutritional aid exemplifies the stigma that is often attached to food assistance programs and those who benefit from them. One such stereotype is that those utilizing aid programs spend all of their money on frivolities. In an article entitled “The Stereotypes of People Who Get Welfare Benefits Are All Wrong,” Bryce Covert compares statistics between those who receive benefits and those who do not. Those who receive assistance devote larger percentages of their money to necessities such as food and housing than those who do not receive benefits – and the former have much smaller spending budgets. Clearly, those that utilize assistance programs actually need the help in order to make ends meet. However, the stereotypes make it uncomfortable for people to seek assistance, and sometimes may even prevent them from doing so entirely.

The guests’ backgrounds are very diverse; “There are family members – some of them are big households, some of them are little – you know, single people, who have lost their jobs or they’re sick and they can’t work…they’re on disability. The majority is a lot of everything…we get different ethnic groups, there’s not just one type of group.” Most of the Food Pantry’s guests have their own private homes or apartments. Some come from the Salvation Army shelter and the shelters in Jamaica.

The food pantry in St. Nicholas of Tolentine gets the majority of its food from the New York City Food Bank, and it packs food in the bags according to the guidelines of Food Bank’s charts “to make sure they get all their food groups”. Additionally, the majority of the food pantry’s funding also comes from the Food Bank, and it gets grants from the NYC Food Bank and City Harvest.

Most people believe that homeless people take up space and do not want those kinds of people in their neighborhood. In an article entitled “Samaritan Center Searching for Neighborhood That Will Welcome Syracuse’s Biggest Soup Kitchen,” Marnie Eisenstadt describes the struggle that a food assistance program is facing in trying to find a location to establish itself. Due to its current location in a very small, cramped space (the basement of a church) and increasing numbers of people in need of assistance (mainly families with children), the soup kitchen is searching for a new space. The directors of this soup kitchen had their eye on the Samaritan Center, which would provide a much bigger space and allow for more people to be fed with increasing efficiency. It would also be an excellent location in terms of being close to where the people it serves are located. However, the residents of this neighborhood do not want the soup kitchen to be relocated to this area, because they feel that they already have enough problems with poverty and crime – and having the soup kitchen there would only attract more poor people with more problems. Because of the stereotyping of poor people as “having problems” and the expectation that they will worsen the condition of the neighborhood, the soup kitchen has nowhere to go, and must remain in a tiny basement, struggling to serve the people that visit it daily for a hot meal.

This is a prime example of how soup kitchens are affected by public space and public life. Neighborhood residents fear the establishment of a soup kitchen or pantry in their area because of the “kinds of people that it will attract”. Most soup kitchens are located in public spaces, such as churches, so it is the public who has the right to complain. Whether it be everyday or once a week, a mass amount of people flood a street in order to receive a meal. This disrupts the lives of the people who walk on that street. The flood of people causes traffic or limits the amount of space that they have to walk, and if these soup kitchens are located in a highly populated area, that could make it worse. As a result, new soup kitchens have a problem getting started, or old ones have trouble finding an upgraded place, as the one in the article did. The stereotypes that are placed on the homeless and the working poor do not help this situation.

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