Ronnie Polaneczky: Dinner for the homeless, with a side of dignity
THE WORD "dignified" isn't often used to describe how the homeless sate their hunger in Philly. There is nothing dignified about fishing food scraps from the trash. Or begging outside Wawa for a sandwich. Or lining up with others on Logan Circle hoping that the soup being ladled by Good Samaritans won't run out before everyone's bowl is filled.
THE WORD "dignified" isn't often used to describe how the homeless sate their hunger in Philly.
There is nothing dignified about fishing food scraps from the trash. Or begging outside Wawa for a sandwich. Or lining up with others on Logan Circle hoping that the soup being ladled by Good Samaritans won't run out before everyone's bowl is filled.
The search for food is demoralizing and terrifying, as the homeless deal with the fallout of lives in which they belong nowhere and, often, to no one.
So it's miraculous that, at least twice a week, hundreds of homeless men and women enjoy a dignified dining experience on South Broad Street, within steps of the gleaming Suzanne Roberts Theatre and the equally shiny Kimmel Center. They sit on comfortable chairs at cloth-covered tables and eat hearty meals served on real plates, with real silverware and real cups. They are offered second and third helpings and are encouraged to take extra fruit and bread when they leave.
Crucially, they do not eat alone. They are joined by volunteers from more fortunate circumstances whose mission is, simply, to be with them. Not that you'd always know who's homeless and who isn't. As the plates are passed and conversation flows about the Eagles, or the icy sidewalks outside, the vibe is communal, born of the egalitarian act of breaking bread together.
This place of relaxed grace is Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St., a nonprofit agency described as a "broad-minded Christian community," which means it provides a whole lot more than its weekly church service.
Including the communal meals, evidence of what its pastor, Bill Golderer, refers to as his organization's "radical hospitality" for all who pass through his building's worn but majestic doors.
I had dinner Sunday evening with the Broad Street community, about a third of whom are homeless. I wanted some perspective on the fray pitting the city's Health Department against do-gooders who feed the homeless - not indoors, as Broad Street does, but on city streets.
If you haven't heard, last week Health Commissioner Don Schwarz proposed regulations that would require those Good Samaritans to obtain "outdoor feeding" permits from the city, and to use department-inspected commercial kitchens to prepare the food they serve.
The advocates - many of whom prepare the foods at home - said the burdensome regulations would destroy their operations. And that would chase the homeless off the street - particularly Ben Franklin Parkway, a popular feeding spot and home of the soon-to-debut Barnes Foundation.
"It's no coincidence that this issue is being raised just as the Barnes is supposed to open," says Mark Broscoe, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, which serves free meals as a protest to war and poverty. "If we can't feed the homeless, they'll go somewhere else. The city knows that."
Schwarz says the regulations are about ensuring that the food consumed by the poor on the streets is as safe as the food consumed by the wealthy in the city's restaurants, which are regulated by the department.
And the permits would lay structure atop a well-intentioned system that is often willy-nilly. Some established church groups feed the homeless on a reliable schedule. Others are there one night, gone the next. Some individuals pull up in cars and give their own dinner scraps to whomever is closest to the window.
"You can have 40 homeless people waiting for hours" for food that doesn't come, says Schwarz. Fights break out in the wait, or when food arrives, but is too scant to feed everyone.
"We would like to work with the groups to eventually bring the homeless inside, where we can provide services," says Schwarz.
That thinking certainly underpins Broad Street's dinners, says Golderer, who has mental-health and other social-services staffers amble among the diners.
"Over a low-key dinner, at a table, you're engaged on a different level," he says. "That's key. No one feels like an outsider. So we can ask about meds, or bring up drug treatment, and then help them fill out forms. There's a dignity to the process that moves the process beyond just feeding."
Surely there's a way to marry the deep compassion of the Parkway's Good Samaritans with the good intentions of Schwarz, whose actions - sorry, cynics - I don't believe are motivated by what museum visitors think of our city.
If such a blend can work at Broad Street Ministry, surely it can work elsewhere, too.