How do you feed people who by definition have no home? While blizzards or heat waves often put the homeless on our radar, their day-to-day need for food is usually less obvious, but equally as critical. On streets and in subways you hear: I’m just trying to get something to eat. A quarter, some dimes, an apple. But even generous commuters can’t possibly feed the three thousand homeless who live on the streets of New York City.
Instead, the unsheltered homeless rely on a network of soup kitchens, free meals, and nonprofit programs that keep them fed and occasionally hand out sleeping bags, socks, and other necessities. The most unique is the Grand Central Food Program which bills itself as the “largest mobile soup kitchen in New York City.” Every night—even during the recent Juno blizzard that swept the East Coast—a fleet of vans filled with food from a kitchen in the Bronx drives throughout the city delivering food to those in need. Curious to see how the program worked, I volunteered for a night in January, running through the lower-Manhattan stops with two veterans of the route.
“I could be your Daddy I’ve been doing this so long,” says one of the two men who steer me through the two-hour ride. He laughs and adds, “Since the beginning of homelessness itself.” In fact, he started volunteering the same year I was born—1989—only four years after the Grand Central Food Program was started. Though the Coalition for the Homeless, the umbrella organization for the GCFP, has been around since 1981, they made food a priority after a homeless woman starved to death in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. Juan De La Cruz, the program manager, says the program was only one of many that started because of her death. “It was just such an amazing thing that someone could starve to death in a city like this,” he adds. The coalition wanted to do something to ensure that it never had to happen again.
In the first years of the Grand Central Food Program they only delivered food to two or three stops—places that already had large numbers of homeless nearby. Instead of the ten or twenty people who are served at one stop today, they’d feed two or three hundred at each. “Little by little it evolved into smaller stops so it was easier to serve everyone,” De La Cruz says, “We didn’t want people to travel from uptown to downtown just to get food.”
Before the volunteer shift started, I was handed a booklet listing every stop the GCFP makes in the Bronx and Manhattan. Each route—one for the Bronx, and another two for downtown and uptown Manhattan—has seven to eight stops, each stop hit at a specific time every night. When we arrived at the first stop there was already a crowd of about ten to 15 men waiting for us. While the majority of NYC’s homeless population consists of families, four-fifths of street homeless are men. New York State has the second highest homeless population in the country, yet NYC has a unique approach to caring for its homeless population. An unusual right-to-shelter law requires the city to provide housing for those without it. Yet for childless adults (most recently there was an average of 25,640 children sleeping in shelters) the problems of shelter life can outweigh the good. There’s stealing, bedbugs and parasites, long lines, and strict check in requirements that prohibit the working homeless from getting in. Those with companion animals would have to leave their dog behind. “Many of our clients have decided shelter life isn’t something they want to do,” De La Cruz says.
GCFP has found a way to work with the street homeless by bringing food and help to them where they live. Handing out food is a three-part process. One person goes down the line handing out plastic bags, another doles out Styrofoam cups of soup and plastic spoons and one or two cartons of milk as well. Another (this was my job) hands out oranges and bagels. “Sometimes we get other stuff too,” one of my fellow volunteers says. “A lot of times the ‘something else’ is something stupid like canned corn. I can’t see how homeless people really appreciate canned corn if they don’t have a can opener.” Tonight, at least, the menu is practical. There’s a method to the madness of piling loose food into plastic bags—the soup sits on the bottom so it’s less likely to spill and the orange, bagel, and anything else goes on top. The line moves quickly and space is tight. We’re in and out of the first stop in less than five minutes.
Though the bagels are donated from NYC’s numerous bagel shops, the rest of the food is bought or made. The oranges come from Hunts Point market—a large food distribution hub also located in the Bronx. The soups (and meals for the daily soup kitchen that the GCFP also runs) come from a kitchen in the Bronx where the organization employs three full-time staff members to prepare meals for the homeless. Sometimes, members of the GCFP even get feedback on the meals and change the menus accordingly. “We used to do chili soup and stew and most people didn’t like it,” De La Cruz says. “They wanted more meatballs and so we added a second dish.” With many food donation programs seeming to operate on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, this kind of attention is surprising at first. But there’s another benefit to keeping these people happy with their food. If the homeless were receiving the same food every night, some of them might stop coming. “The program is set up in a way that we’re bringing out the food, but the bigger mission is to encourage clients to come into our offices for services,” he adds. These services range from eviction prevention to job training. So, my help handing out food isn’t just contributing to full bellies—the meals are about gaining the men’s trust too.
As we drive away from the first stop, the guys in my van realize they forgot to hand out some extra socks they’d brought with them. We pull over on the entrance to an overpass—not exactly kosher but it works—and shout out of the window, “Hey, guys! Socks!” The men below catch them and wave thanks as we drive off from the mild traffic jam we just caused.
At the first stop and most stops afterward, the people we hand food to feel like regulars. They know who to go to first, what they like and don’t like. Some of them don’t take the milk, or take extra milk, don’t like bagels, or want as many oranges as we can give them. The volunteers with me joke about it later—that even people who can’t feed themselves will still be picky about what they eat.
There’s only one awkward moment during the two-hour route and it takes place at a stop near Chinatown. Unlike the other stops, the people in this line are mostly old women and few of them speak English. Even though we’ve given them the maximum amount of milk, oranges, and bagels—we need to keep enough in the van to get through the entire route—they keep asking for more. Then we realize they’ve been circling back for seconds and we were too busy handing and bagging to notice. “It’s always the sweet old lady who causes all the problems,” one of the volunteers says.
Since these stops became routine, they’ve been growing. Many of the newcomers may not be homeless (though they’re likely poor) but are taking advantage of free food wherever they can find it. Though I can tell it doesn’t sit well with the volunteers, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. No one gives you a homeless identification card so we have to take everyone at their word. Or rather, assume that anyone who would take free food from the back of a white van really needs it.
As simple as the program is, a growing number of cities are trying to make the practice of feeding the homeless on the street illegal. These laws came into the public eye because of a 90-year-old Florida man who was repeatedly arrested for doing just that. Arnold Abbott was serving hot food when he was ordered to stop. “A policeman pulled my arm and said, ‘drop that plate right now.’ Like it was a gun,” Abbott told the Sun-Sentinal. Bans on feeding the homeless have been enacted or attempted in over 31 cities, often out of fear that providing food will entice more homeless into public areas. The result just pushes the homeless out of sight and out of mind.
While starving people doesn’t make for good public policy, NYC’s inclusive laws aren’t much better. In 2002 the city’s independent budget office reviewed spending on homeless services, writing, “The city’s substantial spending on homelessness is characterized by an emphasis on short-term solutions and fragmented responsibility. This fragmentation may undermine effective policies to combat homelessness, and may waste critical resources.” Many people believe that increased spending for affordable housing—rather than shelters—is a better long-term solution.
In the city, the homeless are people you look away from while you’re walking from one place to another. Sometimes you give them a smile, a nod, some change, but they’re rarely more than an uncomfortable part of the urban scenery. Usually all I see are people who are huddled up, maybe with a sign, and one isn’t much different than the other. The best thing I can say about the Grand Central Food Program is that it’s different. Even though I’m volunteering for a charity, I didn’t have the sense that I was doing something special to help “the needy.” I was just handing out food to people who wanted it. Like De La Cruz says, “For the most part our clients are just like anyone else—they are going through a rough time and it’s a matter of getting them back on track.”