Every afternoon, the line for food stretches far down Kensington Avenue. Hungry people stand wedged between the train trestles, as staffers remind them to stay at least an arm’s length away from each other. One by one, they walk through the empty yard at St. Francis Inn and up to the window.
There’s no more socializing in the yard, no meals eaten in community. Just the line, and a quick exit. But the crowds still line up at St. Francis, Kensington’s main soup kitchen, for the roast beef and pasta salad and the beef and vegetable soup — because they worry that the soup kitchen may be one of the only places they can get a meal. The fear and anxiety that has gripped the whole city amid the coronavirus outbreak is only heightened for its most vulnerable residents.
“When people come up to get their meals today, they are really concerned if we will be there tomorrow,” said Kaitlin Slack, a St. Francis staff member.
Coronavirus-related closures mean that accessing food in Kensington, one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods and the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic, is more difficult.
“We have an opioid epidemic and a pandemic on top of it,” said Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of health and human services.
Kensington is a neighborhood where getting food, for many, depends in normal times on a cobbled-together social safety net. There’s the soup kitchen, storefront churches, and Prevention Point, the public-health organization for people in addiction. Those are bolstered by restaurants that leave out excess food; church groups that bring brown-bag sandwiches and hot food on the weekends; and a host of volunteers from all over.
With more people staying home to avoid spreading the virus, or becoming sick themselves, that net is starting to fray. The city has pledged to offer more resources in the coming weeks to keep it from shredding further.
St. Francis has cut back to serving one meal a day instead of two. Prevention Point has stopped regularly handing out “grab-and-go” sandwiches and snacks because it doesn’t have enough protective equipment to keep volunteers safe, instead making them only when they have enough food and volunteers to pack bags.
On top of this, providers worry that critical information about how to keep safe isn’t reaching their guests, some of the Philadelphians who need it most — vulnerable, hungry, and impoverished people. Many people in St. Francis’ client base get their information from libraries and drop-in centers, most now closed to slow the spread of the virus.
Without more information, clients have been anxious over the new rules around social distancing, and dismayed that one of their few sources of community is trying to keep them at arm’s length, even if it’s for their own protection.
“People come here for the community. They’re missing that community life,” said Slack. “There’s no place for anyone to sit and exist at this point.”
Gladstein said the city is working to keep homeless residents as healthy as possible in these difficult times, both in Kensington and in Center City, where the most concentrated homeless populations reside. There are fewer volunteers, and bare-bones staff at many food programs. Even people who panhandle for food are feeling the crunch: They hold out cups on silent corners.
Outreach workers have been handing out information cards on the virus for the last two weeks. The city is also installing more hand-washing stations in Kensington for people on the street.
And, Gladstein said, the city is working to bolster feeding programs, reaching out to faith groups to help increase their food donations and making sure they have enough volunteers to support a regular schedule of food handouts. Those measures could be in place as early as next week, she said.
They’re also trying to keep volunteers and staffers safe. Guidelines issued for food programs recommend that no indoor meals be served, and that “grab-and-go” meals be used to ensure social distancing.
“Everyone, like the rest of the world, is stretched for volunteers, but I think everyone's doing their best in a bad situation,” she said.
St. Francis’ freezer is a stockpile of food that could last a month, even if donations falter. Acme Markets’ meat donations, for example, are down, but the grocery chain makes up for it with packaged food. The staff is trying to get more supplies through an Amazon wish list, asking for prepackaged food and drinks, which are more sanitary.
“Every day, there’s a new precaution,” Slack said.
Crowds at the inn have spiked from about 250 per meal to more than 300, likely because of other closures in the neighborhood, Slack said, but the kitchen has sent home its older staffers and volunteers, leaving just eight employees to run operations.
The 80 people who stay in Prevention Point’s shelters on Kensington Avenue are still getting hot meals, said Jose Benitez, the organization’s executive director. But the organization, which used to provide grab-and-go meals five days a week, now makes them only when it can spare the staff and volunteers — and the equipment to keep them safe.
“It sounds simple, to just say let’s get volunteers together and they can do it,” he said. "But we really have to protect those folks, and we don’t have enough protective equipment to be able to supply everybody.”
Some of the organization’s most crucial outreach efforts, like a needle exchange, are still operating outside the building. But Prevention Point’s drop-in center, where people in addiction can rest and receive services during the day, has been closed since March 16.
The staff has been handing out a guide for clients, telling them where to find emergency meals on days Prevention Point cannot distribute food. The organization also has an Amazon wish list for donations.
The Mother of Mercy House on Allegheny Avenue is still offering weekly meals, also switching to packed food instead of sit-down lunches.
Staffers at all three organizations said they were determined to help guests in whatever capacity they can as the virus spreads.
“The only time we would go anywhere is if someone here catches the virus or forces beyond our control shut us down,” Slack said. “We just don’t know.”