My daughter, like many nine-year-old kids, can be a bit dramatic. When she gets home from school she’ll often throw down her backpack and exclaim, “I’m starving!” I have to remind her that just outside our door and throughout the streets of the city, there are many people who are actually starving – people my team and I serve every single night of the year.
In fact, the Coalition for the Homeless’ Grand Central Food Program – which I’ve run since 2006 – was founded the day after a homeless woman died of starvation in Grand Central Terminal in 1985. The coalition was rightly outraged that a human being could starve to death in the middle of one of the richest cities in the world, and started handing out sandwiches to homeless people in the station the very next day. Today, GCFP is the largest nightly mobile soup kitchen in the United States. Our three vans make 23 stops along three routes in upper Manhattan, lower Manhattan, and the Bronx, serving 1,000 hot, nutritious meals each night to our homeless and hungry neighbors.
But due to recent funding cuts, we are facing the real risk of having to eliminate our Bronx route. Some of those we serve on that route are so desperate that they ask for an extra meal to save for lunch the next day. Having to cut back like this would be heartbreaking considering the impact it would have on the lives of the hundreds of people who rely on us each night. That is why we are calling on the New York City Council to fully #FundFoodVans by dedicating $235,000 in discretionary funds to make sure we can continue providing this essential service to thousands of homeless and hungry men, women and children. We’re also asking the public to use that hashtag to let your City Council representative know that you agree.
Since 1985, we have never missed a single night of operation – we were out there on the city’s streets on 9/11, in the midst of Superstorm Sandy, and during every rainstorm or blizzard that has pummeled the city in the past 32 years. Hunger doesn’t take a night off so neither do we.
This tenacity is all the more impressive when you consider that almost all of the people serving the meals and driving the vans are volunteers. About three-quarters of our volunteers are regulars who serve several times per month and some of our volunteers have been with the program for more than a decade. They truly go above and beyond to get to know the men, women and children – yes, children – whom we meet every night. One volunteer who has been covering Wednesdays and Fridays for more than 13 years knows what foods each client likes before they even arrive at the van.
Homelessness and extreme poverty can be dehumanizing and isolating, but our volunteers treat every person with respect and compassion. In addition to food, we distribute other much-needed items such as warm winter coats, blankets, socks, sleeping bags, and shoes. It sounds cliché, but it’s not unusual to see a GCFP volunteer take the sweater off his or her back and give it to a shivering homeless person.
During a major blizzard last year, we came across a homeless woman, huddling from the icy winds whose sneakers kept getting stuck in the snow. We were able to give her new boots right there on the spot and then bring her to a safe, warm place. I’m not sure what would’ve happened to her if our vans hadn’t been there that night. By building long-term relationships and trust, we are able to encourage those living on the streets to come inside so we can connect them to critical services. We also give them opportunities to volunteer and help us serve meals, which is an empowering experience for them. Homeless volunteers have a unique way of relating to the others we serve because they’ve been there. GCFP is really about creating a community.
The dedication of our volunteers helps us to keep operating costs extremely low. Each meal we serve costs the coalition approximately $2 – a bargain considering that it’s a complete, healthy meal consisting every night of a hearty stew, fruit, bread, and milk in addition to donated food, which is less predictable.
“We are calling on the New York City Council to fully #FundFoodVans by dedicating $235,000 in discretionary funds to make sure we can continue providing this essential service to thousands of homeless and hungry men, women and children.” – Juan De La Cruz
In the 13 years I’ve run GCFP, the demand for our services has only grown. During the summer, when the lines are the longest, we’re constantly switching food from one van to another when volunteers report that we are close to running out of meals on a route. We’ve also seen an increase in families – parents who are often spending so much on rent that they can’t afford to feed their kids. More senior citizens are also turning to us for food. More working poor New Yorkers are struggling to get by too, including restaurant workers who face hunger despite preparing and serving meals for wealthier people. When every other safety net has failed, GCFP is there – every night.
Because the GCFP vans go out in the evenings, I’m not usually home to eat dinner with my own family. But my daughter and sons sometimes tag along when I go to work and they’re always struck by the impact our program has on the people we serve. It’s hard to confront the suffering and hunger of our fellow New Yorkers and to explain it to your kids, but every night I know that the 1,000 people who depend on GCFP will at least be able to go to sleep with food in their stomachs. And no matter what challenges we face, we’ll do our best to be there for them because in this rich city, we refuse to let another New Yorker die of starvation.