Volunteers, gifts fill funding void


March 03, 1993|By Laura Lippman and Thomas W. Waldron | Laura Lippman and Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writers

Right now, chances are somebody in Baltimore is eating a free meal.

An almost invisible network of four dozen soup kitchens is in almost constant operation in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Wednesday last week was typical. On a bitterly cold day, almost 7,000 meals were served at 29 city soup kitchens. Ironically, the number of diners would have been even higher if the weather had been warmer.

It began at 6:15 a.m., as David Green and Carlton Hicks huddled in an unheated vestibule, waiting 45 minutes for the doors to open at New Metropolitan Baptist Church in West Baltimore. By 7:10 a.m., the two men had wolfed down a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns and scrapple, then disappeared back into the streets.

More than 14 hours later, Nita Braxton and Roxanne Marshall paced in the dark cold across from City Hall, waiting for the Salvation Army truck that delivers sandwiches after the sun goes down.

The two women, both in their 30s, had already eaten two free meals that day. This time, they didn't connect. The truck stopped at a different location and the women went home frustrated.

From day to day, even year to year, nothing much changes at the kitchens, except for the number of people looking for food, which always goes up.

Steven Tuttle, director of Our Daily Bread, a downtown kitchen that feeds up to 800 people 365 days a year, doesn't expect any improvement.

"Hunger," he says, "is the growth industry of the '90s."

Fifteen years ago, there were fewer than 10 soup kitchens in Baltimore. Most were small-scale operations, serving perhaps 50 meals a day.

The clients were single men -- unemployed, often with drug or alcohol problems. They lived on the streets, in flophouses, or missions. The term "homeless" was not part of the average person's lexicon.

Today, the Maryland Food Committee has a list of almost 180 churches and nonprofit groups offering some sort of anti-hunger aid. Demand has doubled at almost every soup kitchen in the last three years.

In addition to the soup kitchens -- almost 50 now -- there are food pantries, which give out three-day supplies of groceries, and programs that distribute bag lunches. Two enterprising University of Baltimore law students recycle restaurant and ballpark leftovers.

Most of these programs are driven by the Judeo-Christian principles at the heart of this country's charitable missions since its founding. Ames Memorial United Methodist Church, a West Baltimore church relatively new in the feeding field, offers a religious service with its modest meal. First Emmanuel Church in Reservoir Hill now has a dozen members who first came through the doors for free food.

There are special programs for new problems. The HERO drop-in center, for example, caters only to those with HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV-infected people have special nutritional needs.

As their clientele has grown, the kitchens have grown, too. Once housed in a storefront, Fells Point's Beans and Bread purchased its own building last year. Our Daily Bread, which began with Monsignor Paul Love handing out bologna sandwiches from the rectory door, has its own handsome, $1.1 million glass-and-brick headquarters.

The clientele changed as it grew. Intact families now come to the kitchens. Working men count on the free meals to stretch a minimum wage check. Those on food stamps -- 187,467 in the city as of last year -- rely on soup kitchens at month's end, until the next stamps arrive.

"It's a trade-off for another part of their household budget," said Linda Eisenberg, director of the Maryland Food Committee. "What would these people be doing if they weren't there? There would be more evictions, more telephone turn-offs, more utility bills accumulating over the winter."

Not everyone is homeless

Although there is little demographic information on who eats at soup kitchens, most workers agree that fewer than half are truly homeless.

"I've got a brand-new house in East Baltimore that I renovated, with wall-to-wall carpet and everything," says Ronald Maurice Smith, 28, waiting for breakfast at New Metropolitan Baptist. "I've got a home. It's a job I need."

Across town at Manna House, on East 25th Street, Wanda Webb waited in the cold for 45 minutes, just to eat grits she didn't particularly like. The 42-year-old woman, who receives public assistance and $111 in food stamps, seldom makes it to the end of the month without eating there.

Lee Baze, 35, who uses an electric wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, waited patiently for a space to open up at the First United Evangelical Church.

Stephen Hyatt, 39, exists on a disability check of just over $400 a month, for cataracts and a bad arm that keep him from working. He's been eating in soup kitchens for some 14 years.

"At first, I was too proud to come, but you have to eat," he said, finishing up his evening meal at First Emmanuel, at 2209 Park Avenue.

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