(Pastor’s note: This article might be alternately titled:
“How a Volunteer Sees The Cupboard, Homelessness and Old First.” It appeared in the Bucks County Herald, July 7, 2011)
On the streets of Philadelphia’s Old City live many homeless men and women. A great number of them find shelter beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge, where they spend their nights, even in the bitter-cold of winter. Most of them refuse to go to shelters provided for them.
Some, however, visit the Old First Church at Fourth and Race Streets, which puts up about 25 men a night.
Saint Luke’s United Church of Christ in Ottsville has a mission committee, of which I am a member, and we go down to Old First Church every third Saturday of the month. We prepare and serve breakfast for the homeless, after which we give them canned food (with pop-tops) and clothing. We call that The Cupboard. I’ll get back to that later.
At 7 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, June 18, two carloads of us left St. Luke’s parking lot and drove to Old First, we we found close to 70 men and two women waiting for us. The men helped us carry in the food and clothing that we had brought down to them. Later they helped set up the tables, but more on breakfast later.
Pastor Suzanne Spaulding always goes with us. We make ourselves nametags out of sticky tape, and hers reads “Pastor Suzanne.” That drew a man named Bruce to her, and he told us the following story:
“I was homeless for four years,” Bruce said. “I slept on the sidewalks, even on the coldest days in winter. I remember feeling the rough bricks under me. A woman and some other people brought food, and in the winter the woman covered me with blankets.
After four years of that, I thought I shouldn’t keep taking all the time. I wanted to give something back, so I came to this church. People have been giving to me for four years, and I want to give something of myself. It makes me feel much better.”
Bruce is well-shaven and carefully dressed. He obviously puts a great deal of importance on appearance, and he emphasized that this is a gift he shares with the homeless men: he set up a chair and a table at the side of the large room and offered the men haircuts and shaves. Nearly all the men lined up to take advantage of his services. I do not know if he was ever a professional barber, but his work is extremely good. He cut and styled the men’s hair according to their wishes, and he shave them all. One man went to him with an enormous beard, and Bruce shaved it all off. For others, he trimmed their beards.
“I feel so good,” one man said after he stroked his smooth cheeks with his fingers.
As far as breakfast is concerned, we give them something different each time we go. A wonderful woman from Glenside, named Donna, does all of the cooking as her gift. On June 18, she served the people French Toast. One week it was sausage and pancakes, and on another it was bacon and eggs. In addition, we give them orange juice, toast, breakfast cakes, and, of course, coffee. The men put up the tables and we cover them with table cloths and set them.
Then there’s The Cupboard. After breakfast, each man is given an number and we call them into the cupboard in numerical order. People have donated bars of soap, shampoo, tooth brushes, tooth paste, deodorant, new underwear, T-shirts, shorts, jeans, jackets, shirts, slacks, socks, shoes sweat shirts, belts and hats, among other things.
All this has created a problem: there are more and more people coming in each time we go.
As one of our members said, “There seem to be so many younger people.”
We need more clothing for men; if used, in good condition. We ran out of underwear the last time, so we need money to purchase more.
Many of the men are veterans, from every branch of the services. They need jobs, and they are really trying to find something. It worries me that there will be more homeless when the troops come back from Afghanistan and everywhere else.
In the meantime, we will continue to go to Old First Church on the third Saturday of each month. And so will Bruce!
By Betty Orlemann