What: Delivering meals to the homeless and hungry
Where: Traveling by van throughout Manhattan, through New York Cares
When: Saturdays and Sundays (with New York Cares), 6:45pm-10pm
Last Saturday I helped deliver meals with Coalition for the Homeless who, according to their website, “Each night, a fleet of vans delivers life-saving meals of hearty stew, bread, fresh fruit, and juice or milk to approximately 1,000 people. During the past year, the Grand Central Food Program served more than 365,000 meals to homeless and hungry New Yorkers.”
You’ll meet up with the other volunteers and 3 vans outside of a church in Murray Hill. After everyone checks in, you’ll be assigned a route (there are three, hence the three vans) and be on your way to Upper Manhattan, Downtown, or the Bronx. There are designated stops along each route, which have been in place for years, ensuring that those who need to eat will know where to go, simply because the Coalition will always be there, in the same place at relatively the same time, every day of the week.
I was in the Downtown Van, which made 7 stops: 35th St. under FDR Drive, Housing Court/Chinatown @ Lafayette & Leonard St., Staten Island Ferry, Sunshine Hotel/Bowery Mission, 6th Ave. bet. Washington & Waverly Pl., Madison Square Park, and last was Penn Station/KMart. The vans will usually have 3-5 volunteers, including an experienced driver. The first thing we had to do once we got on our way was to begin opening plastic bags, to save time for later when we were to hand them out.
At every stop, each volunteer has a specific responsibility and everything is done quickly-its basically an assembly line. The clients (people waiting for food), will line up and receive a plastic bag from a volunteer, as two more volunteers open the back doors of the van and open boxes of food. Each night the meal will vary; last week we had oranges, milk, juice, turkey sandwiches and mustard. Clients will walk up to the van, bags open, and volunteers will simply put everything inside for them. Some people were very specific about what they wanted: one person told me I was crazy if I thought he wanted a milk carton in his bag, and to place it in his hand. Silly me, I guess. Other people will take everything, and then swap or give away the things they don’t want to other people in line; it’s interesting to see an entire community of people, so downtrodden, helping each other more than most people in NYC with a house to sleep in. But I digress…
A few things about the Chinatown stop, which I was told in advance to allay any panic: there are usually about 100-150 people at this stop, separated into two lines, men and women. This is not a requirement of the Coalition, it’s just something that happens only in Chinatown. This group is also very pushy and most of them do not speak any English, so things get very tense. Be prepared. For some reason, the night I volunteered there was only one line, which we later assumed was done in an attempt to confuse us. Or maybe they just didn’t feel like making two lines-I have no idea. Regardless, because there were so many people with heavy coats and hats and gloves, some got back into line and claimed they never got food, demanding a bag, and we were unable to tell who was who. It got a little hectic as we tried to determine who had already received food, relying mainly on the volunteer who had handed out the bags. Everything got resolved after about 10 minutes, and most clients left happy except for 1 very old, very fragile woman, who refused to leave without a second bag. We were back in the van pulling away, as she began banging on the side of the van with her cane, yelling in Chinese. My feelings are that if you’re that desperate for food, 80+ years old employing your cane as a weapon, you probably really need it. We all agreed and the head volunteer got out and gave her more.
As I’ve probably said before, the projects I most enjoy doing are those which involve direct contact with people, as it allows you to see the difference you’re making. It feels really good. I also got to talk briefly with some of the clients; one who gave me a quick history of a nearby church dating back to the 1700’s, and another who hands out his own plastic bags before the van gets there, as a way of saying thank you. Other things to know:
- Don’t be afraid to hold your ground to anyone being aggressive, attempting to get more food or cutting the line. They know the rules, you know the rules. Eventually they will leave or follow instructions.
- Dress for the weather! It’s December right now-drinking hot cocoa with the heat pumping in the van is not only not an option, it’s a slap in the face to the people waiting for food who may be sleeping outside that night. So don’t forget your scarf, and get out there..
- Don’t wear gloves, unless they’re the latex kind. Its inevitable that something will be leaking and getting everything else wet, be it milk or juice. Utilize the hand sanitizer after each stop that is available in the van, or bring your own.
- No one can get seconds until everyone on line gets firsts, if there is even enough. Check with the head volunteer if you’re unsure; they will be able to determine if there is enough food in the van for the remaining stops and clients.
- Coalition for the Homeless has four other programs that depend on volunteers, in addition to the Grand Central Food Program: Camp Homeward Bound, the Development Department, First Step , and the Advocacy Department. Click here to read more about these opportunities and contact information to sign up.