Last week — more than two months after Mayor Michael Nutter called a hasty press conference to announce a ban on giving away free meals in city parks — a task force of city officials and homeless advocates he belatedly appointed to come up with new meal solutions finally met.
That effort, according to several accounts of the meeting, did not get off to a roaring start. Arthur Evans, who directs the Department of Behavioral Health, offered a note of reconciliation to the several task-force members who represent the very feeding efforts being banned — but this was somewhat overshadowed by the crashing of the party by the uninvited Brian Jenkins, director of meal provider Chosen 300 Ministries and a leading critic of the mayor's ban.
The administration and homeless advocates have been clashing publicly for weeks, and worked together not much better behind closed doors.
"It seemed like a room where there wasn't a lot of trust," acknowledges the Rev. Bill Golderer, a Presbyterian minister who heads the Broad Street Ministry on Broad Street between Spruce and Pine and sits on the task force. "And without trust, there's very little progress to be made."
Since the initial outcry over the ban, and a different regulation requiring Health Department permits to serve free food, things have only gotten uglier. A Board of Health hearing drew hundreds in opposition. A second hearing was so heated that the entire Board of Health left the room and holed up in another one, shutting the door and letting in only a few reporters and representatives. Recently, a third hearing was inexplicably rescheduled at the last minute. And, as City Paper reported earlier this week, the Philadelphia law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg is now investigating a possible federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of feeders who claim the ban violates their freedom of religion.
But sometimes, conflict begets opportunity — and Golderer gets that. Forty-two years old, with slightly boyish looks and a youthful energy that sometimes manifests in torrents of words and probably explains how he can also double as senior pastor at Arch Street Presbyterian Church, Golderer has largely stayed out of the feud between feeders and the city.
But he hasn't been idle. For months now, he's been busy positioning himself and his church smack-dab in the middle of what he hopes will be something new in the city's homeless-service landscape. Rather than taking sides, he's quietly expanded his church's services — the first steps, he hopes, in a radical experiment to reimagine Philly's tattered homeless safety net. Broad Street Ministry already hosts a city-funded "cafe" shelter for the homeless during cold months and serves two meals a week in its spacious sanctuary — a free lunch on Thursdays and an after-service dinner on Sundays. Golderer is preparing to increase that to six per week within the next 90 days. His goal is to get to nine.
That, he hopes, is just the beginning: "The 'more meals' part of this could well be the least interesting part to mention of what I hope will unfold," he tells CP.
Golderer sees in the current uproar — along with the (almost certainly related) opening of the Barnes Foundation and the pouring of money into other public spaces on the Parkway; along with the slow, grinding decline of the city's shelter system; along with the disaster of poverty likely heading our way if Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposals are realized — a "moment" that he intends to seize.
"We're working toward this world-class Philadelphia, anchored by the Barnes — and I'm excited about that. It's a good thing. I want the Barnes," he says. "But do you know how much money it took to raise the Barnes? If we're going to be stepping up to support things like this, then the do-gooders need to make sure this indoor-meal system will happen. When this city wants to do something, it can do it."
His plan is not without risk: namely, the risk of pissing off the city, his wealthy Center City neighbors and his religious and secular colleagues. But it's a necessary risk, and if his plan pans out he'll have helped bring them all a little closer together.
Seven years ago, Bill Golderer arrived in Philly with the assignment of reviving the historic church on South Broad Street, once the place of worship for notables such as Joseph Wanamaker, but by that time the empty shell of a congregation that had evaporated.
"We were like the kid at the middle-school dance," Golderer says, "that nobody wants to dance with."
The transformation that's taken place since — and it's quite the transformation — has been spiritual first and structural second. Early on, Golderer and his Broad Street Ministry staff decided that their congregation would be open — super open — "and some people took us up on that claim: the most chronic, debilitated people of the city, the people who to some are the scourge of Center City. Those people found us. And it was either we go away, or we go forward."
The church basement was converted into a minimalist homeless "cafe" that sleeps up to 80 people on a cold night. It's one of the only shelters in the city where a man and woman may sleep next to each other. An old coat room was refitted into a tiny thrift "store," from which visitors can select free clothes. When Golderer learned that another nonprofit had stopped providing mail service for the homeless, he had his staff create a post office from scratch. "When we started," recalls BSM staffer Liam O'Donnell, "we said, 'We'll limit it to 50.'" The post office currently serves 600.
The centerpiece of the church's transformation is something both simple and, as it turns out, intensely complicated: meals. Six years ago, BSM launched its "Breaking Bread" program: a free meal, served at Thursday lunchtime, open to all.
It's not by any means the only free meal to be had in Center City. Most of the city's homeless shelters serve meals, though mostly only to residents; a small handful of churches serve meals one or two days a week; Chosen 300 Ministries, on Spring Garden Street, serves six times a week; and the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission proudly serves three meals a day, seven days a week. Then there are the recently banned (but still being served) meals on the Parkway.
BSM's may, however, be the most unique free meals in Center City. There are the small touches, like a pleasant jazz track playing in the background while folks eat using real silverware and non-disposable plates, a shared bowl of rolls at the center of each table. More importantly, says Golderer, "The entire operation is designed to reduce anxiety — the anxiety of not knowing if there'll be enough left for you, the anxiety of feeling like you have to hurry up or you're going to miss out. Middle-class people don't worry about whether something's going to run out; the people who come here worry all the time, every day."
At BSM, there is no line for food, because guests are served at their tables. There is no line for the "personal-care ministry," which provides such basic amenities as deodorant, socks and underwear, thanks to a new color-coded lottery the staff devised. "You know that you'll be called when your color comes up, so you can take your time, relax, enjoy your meal," explains O'Donnell, who administers the lottery.
To avoid the possible discomfort of having to ask for unmentionables, BSM created "order forms" that allow guests to check off their needs with privacy and dignity. "When an adult man has to say to Karen" — Rev. Karen Rohrer, who helps with the personal-care ministry — "that 'I need clean underwear,' I don't want to live in that world," Golderer says emphatically.
With the underwear — as with the deodorant, as with the mail, as with the food — the better the service, the higher the demand. "Once you have good food," Breaking Bread coordinator O'Donnell says, somewhat philosophically, "you have a capacity problem."
To make room for guests, the church quite literally ripped the pews out of its sanctuary and put in rows of round tables. They recently spent half a million dollars creating an industrial-grade kitchen.
Despite all that, capacity remains an issue. Take, for instance, underwear — BSM can hand out 135 pairs a week and still run out. When Rohrer had to tell a man a week ago that they had none left, it sounded like a small stone had been lodged in her throat.
"The underwear thing has been incredibly stressful," Golderer acknowledged later. "It'd be as if my wife said, 'Honey, I need deodorant, can you pick some up?' and I was like, 'No, honey, remember? We can't afford that.'"