Coronavirus killed panhandling and closed food pantries. This volunteer is scrambling to keep homeless Philadelphians alive.
More people are hungry, and there’s less to go around. “Everyone is resorting to stealing because you can’t panhandle. People are more disrespectful now. I got sprayed with Lysol on a train.”
Thomas Frey drove slowly through the silent city, its stores shuttered and sidewalks deserted. Then, turning onto Race Street, he found a crowd. About 40 men sat on the sidewalk, stood in small groups, or napped in a cozy row in the fluorescent glow of a convenience store that along with the St. John’s Hospice shelter is all that remains of the commercial life of the block.
Snapping on his mask, face shield, and rubber gloves, Frey began distributing what his church, St. Miriam’s Parish and Friary in Flourtown, calls Blessing Bags, Ziploc bags of food, each containing a day’s calories.
“We used to do usually about a thousand bags a month in Philadelphia and Montgomery County,” Frey said. "Now, we’re doing a thousand bags a week, and we’re failing miserably.”
St. Miriam’s is one tiny part of Philadelphia’s patchwork food supply for homeless people, which has strained and shredded during the pandemic — and an example of how the few volunteers who remain, people like Frey, are stretching themselves to their limits. Food pantries have closed, and some soup kitchens have reduced service. The college students who served meals on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway were hastily sent home. Restaurant and grocery store dumpsters no longer offer a reliable bounty.
While hunger has become a bottomless problem during the pandemic, those who were already homeless say their circumstances are more desperate than ever. Everything is scarce: food, money, and especially bathrooms.
"Everyone is resorting to stealing because you can’t panhandle,” said Joshua Smith, 29. His regulars are gone, and everyone else hurries past. Even if they have money to give, most are afraid of hand-to-hand contact, he said. “People are more disrespectful now,” he said. "I got sprayed with Lysol on the train.”
And new arrivals continue to appear: a few released from county jails where the coronavirus has been spreading, some discharged from hospitals, still wearing wristbands and gowns that flap open in back.
Others were made homeless by the pandemic. Henry Damian, 42, said he works full time for the longshoremen’s union, but his finances were decimated in a divorce. He’d been staying with his parents, but he agreed to go to a shelter rather than risk bringing contagion home from work. “They’re very afraid" of exposure to the virus, he said of his family. “So when they’re self-quarantined and isolating themselves, where can I go?”
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Frey, a plumber from Abington, has long integrated food distribution into his daily commute through the city, making stops before work, at lunchtime, in the evening.
Rolling up the back door of his box truck, he revealed a storehouse: the Blessing Bags of food, but also bags of medicines and bandages. Hundreds of donated Bombas socks. Cardboard for sleeping on. Toothbrushes and paste. Bottled water. Maxi-pads. Dog food. Sewing kits. Raincoats. The truck has become a familiar though eccentric sight, scrawled with dry-erase messages, offering food and asking for donations. He drives by Fox 29 studios every day, so he figures it’s free publicity.
During ordinary times, Frey and other volunteers try to get to know people by name, recording interviews for Miracle Messages, an organization that tries to reconnect them to their families. Now, he aims to arrive as people are curling up to sleep, his goal to minimize contact and maintain his distance.
He started his night at 8:30 with Cliff McGoldrick, a first-time volunteer, riding along. McGoldrick is 70 and a smoker. “If not now, when?” he said, snapping on rubber gloves.
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Some of those who received the Blessing Bags were also wearing masks and rubber gloves, though most masks hung loose on necks. Staying clean is difficult even for the fastidious, and even with new hand-washing stations installed by the city.
Nate Riley said his primary complaint is access to bathrooms. “Guys are forced to go in the alleyways, behind dumpsters. It’s pretty embarrassing, honestly.”
Frey and McGoldrick had distributed nearly 40 bags, plus water, socks, and medicine, when a police car rolled up alongside five men bedded down on a corner. They had to move across the street.
Corey Wearry, 36, walked over to mediate, addressing the disgruntled men in soothing tones: “They ain’t got to do that, but you can’t disrespect them. You got to move.”
Wearry said he’s been homeless since he was released from jail on a drug charge; his probation officer, he said, wouldn’t let him transfer supervision to Lancaster County, where his family lives. He’d been staying in a tent encampment below the Convention Center on 12th Street, but the camp was dispersed in March. Now, he’s a nomad, setting up camp at night and breaking it down each morning.
“We’re lucky you all came, because we weren’t going to get no food or water tonight,” he told Frey. "It’s 9, and we ain’t eat since lunch at 12.”
St. Miriam’s, too, is struggling — shrinking from 25 regular volunteers to six. They’re adapting to a growing need, permitting people who have cars in which to shelter in place, but no homes, to park in the church’s lot overnight. A $10,000 grant from the city will help in the long run, but right now every day is a scramble.
Frey can’t even source soap, let alone the mini-bottles of hand sanitizer he used to distribute. He’s been running out of blankets. And bare supermarket shelves and Amazon backlogs have forced him to spend whole afternoons hunting for things like peanut butter crackers. “We spent every penny we had as a parish to order tuna fish and Vienna sausage," he said. "We ordered thousands and thousands of dollars of it, and we still haven’t received it.”
The truck rattled onward, to the Eighth Street subway station, one of the few underground refuges still accessible for those without anywhere safer to stay. More than 40 people were hunkered into every niche and nook.
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Joshua Smith bounded lightly to the truck and offered to help with deliveries. Though he lives in the subway station, he’s used to giving out food — expired packets of apple slices with caramel, hummus with pita, all scavenged from Wawa dumpsters. Though panhandling has dried up, he has not lost hope. “I have a lot of hustles,” he said. Among them, he’s a “phlebotomist” who can help drug users find a vein.
But the pandemic has made the prospect of getting out of the subway and into rehab fainter than ever, he said. He doesn’t even have an ID. With everything closed, he wouldn’t even know where to start.
Frey and McGoldrick piled back into the truck for a slow, rumbling serpentine through Center City, stopping every few blocks to hop out and give away more Blessing Bags. Frey ducked behind a building where he did an emergency plumbing job once, and noticed people sleeping amid the trashcans. Then he circled Rittenhouse Square, where the doorway of Barnes & Noble is now a shelter.
One man flagged the truck down with a grin. “I haven’t eaten all day," he said. "I was just getting ready to steal something.”
Someone asked for help getting a phone, but Frey has to focus on the most basic survival needs. It’s a form of harm reduction. When he sees people lying on steam vents, he brings them fresh trash bags along with their food, urging them to sleep atop the bags to stay dry. One woman he approached this way awakened, startled. “Get away from me,” she shouted. “My boyfriend’s a cop.” He set the bag down gently and backed away.
As if calling on a friend, Frey leaned over a cardboard barricade at the entrance of an office building.
“Hey, Ray! You hungry? I got tuna, and I got you two low-carb V-8 juices.”
Ray, who declined to give his last name, is 59 and diabetic. He worked 32 years for the phone company before being laid off, he said; when he turns 60, he’ll be able to claim his full pension. Coronavirus or not, he just needs to make it to December. For now, Ray is enjoying the peace and quiet the pandemic has brought.
“At 8 o’clock, the whole world ends,” he said.
Frey moved on, looping back toward the Parkway to give out the last two bags of food. Around 11, he walked empty-handed back to the truck.
“This is the sad part of my night,” he said. “When I go home, and I’ll pass 15 more people and I have nothing left to give them. I do my crying on the way home.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.