On Wednesday, Nov. 20, from sunrise until long after sunset, Baltimore's soup kitchens and other agencies served more than 5,900 free meals to the poor and homeless.
6:55 a.m., 1501 McCulloh St.
The smell of a hot breakfast -- eggs, sausage and grits -- escapes through the double glass doors at New Metropolitan Baptist Church as a smartly dressed volunteer picks her way through the men thronging the entrance.
More than 50 people already have lined up for Baltimore's first free meal of the day and others are still arriving. There are only two women, but more -- with children -- will arrive after the first rush.
Chatting about disability checks and public assistance, the men are relaxed and friendly. When the doors open, they press forward urgently, eager to eat. Within three minutes, 91 are sitting at tables in the basement, sipping iced orange juice and coffee.
The room is a hushed, pleasant place. There is no sense of hurry, but also no lingering over empty plates and glasses. Within 10 minutes, George Wilson has his hat back on and is moving toward the door.
Wilson, 44, says he worked as a roofer for 20 years, until he suffered heat stroke after drinking too much on the job. Now he relies on general public assistance and food stamps, gone less than three weeks into the month.
"This is my first time this month," he said. "It helps a lot when you run out. But they only do breakfast once a week."
Outside, Melvin Stewart, 30, said he began to rely on the $H church's meals when he quit his job as a security guard. He liked the work, but found it difficult to get to the jobs in Hunt Valley
"A lot of people need work," said Stewart. "That's why we're here -- we need work."
8:45 a.m., Manna House, 25th Street.
As director of the Midtown Churches Community Association, Esther Reaves is Baltimore's institutional memory. She remembers a time -- less than a decade ago, in fact -- when the city had fewer than 10 soup kitchens and no food pantries.
Now, she says, taxpayers and politicians expect non-profit agencies and churches to feed the poor at month's end.
"They take it for granted that we're going to feed 200 people, 300 people, that we're going to bust our chops," Reaves declares.
"When I started here, it literally was a soup kitchen. We had one person, paid $10 a day, who just put everything in a pot. That's when I got involved, said we had to offer more. . . . The Lord just steps in, where humans step out. This keeps working, I guess, from a power bigger than I am."
12 noon, 410 W. Franklin St.
Inez Smith lives only three blocks from Our Daily Bread, one of Baltimore's best-known soup kitchens and one of the few open 365 days a year. But the short trip is impossible for Smith, who can't even walk the 10 feet from her recliner to her apartment door.
For her, Meals on Wheels has been a life-saver -- literally. Five years ago, too weak to open a can of soup, Smith called the service for shut-ins to ask about signing up. She went into a diabetic coma while on the telephone and the volunteer sent paramedics to her home.
"They come every morning, Monday through Friday," Smith said. "On Saturdays, I have a sister who comes in and cook. Sundays, that's my problem. I've got to find someone to help me on Sundays."
Meals on Wheels charges people what they can afford to pay. While some of its 1,706 clients pay more than $40 a week, others pay as little as $5 and 248 receive the food for free.
12:25 p.m., 200 block of West Franklin St.
"Hey, I know you!"
Chuck -- "That's my street name, can't give you a last name" -- is outside Our Daily Bread, finishing his vanilla pudding. A slender 41-year-old man in a blue baseball cap, bright blue sweats and a fake leather jacket, Chuck also was also one of the first in line at New Metropolitan Church this morning.
"Some people need it," he said, licking his pudding spoon. "There are a lot of people who are freeloading. I know. I used to do it."
Chuck said he had a steady job for 17 years, working for a company that sold pornography, but he lost it after an epileptic seizure. Then he worked as a maintenance man for a downtown church, had another seizure and lost his job again.
Homeless, on public assistance, he spends much of his day walking from meal to meal. By noon, he had covered more than five miles, moving from his secret sleeping spot to McCulloh Street and back downtown. And his day is far from over.
1:05 p.m., 2500 W. Lombard St.
The 141st person has finished lunch at Shiloh Christian Community Church, and the volunteers are resting their feet, taking a grapefruit juice break.
They would have liked some leftover sheet cake with their juice, but there wasn't a crumb to spare after the weekly crowd moved through the southwest Baltimore church.