Every night of the year, no matter what the weather, two Coalition for the Homeless food vans travel around Manhattan distributing hot meals to people in the street—more than seven hundred meals every night, 250,000 a year. Business has been strong recently, particularly late in the month when welfare checks give out. How can that be? “We don’t see the homeless anymore,” friends say. Times are good, unemployment down. Who else could be out there but the mentally ill and addicts?
On a recent August night, one of the two vans circled lower Manhattan, starting at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. A few hungry people came by; the meal that night was a twelve-ounce cup of hot chili, a container of milk, an orange, and a piece of bread. At about seven o’clock the van moved on; some people asked for food while one of our vans was standing among the limousines opposite the UN Plaza Hotel; then it stopped for a much larger group, mainly men, near the East River. Most of them had been waiting, knowing that the van would come by.
Other stops were made on the way to the City Hall neighborhood where, in the Housing Court parking lot, there were two already organized lines—men to the left, women and children to the right, about eighty in all. The regular volunteers knew how to proceed, giving out five meals to those in one line, then five to the other. The parking lot is on the edge of New York’s Chinatown, but two new volunteers were not prepared for the sight of dozens of Asian women, half of them accompanied by infants and children, waiting patiently for their evening meal. The children carried thin plastic bags—the kind convenience stores use—for their dinner. Then they and their mothers, and often grandmothers, sat on the curb to eat while the chili was still hot.
Were they addicts, mentally ill? A few were, but most of the men, and all of the family groups, were neatly dressed, clean, and seemed alert and self-possessed. Some asked for second helpings of milk or bread, which the volunteers could not supply. They had four more stops that night. In fact the bread, which is gathered by City Harvest at bakeries and restaurants around the city, gave out. Fraser Bresnahan, the Coalition van leader, said that “we never have enough bread.” Someone had been paying for eighty dozen bagels each Tuesday night, but he ran into difficulties and couldn’t go on.
Another stop, at Park Place, in front of City Hall. By then it was 8 PM, and most city officials had gone home, although there were still limos waiting alongside the curb. There were no children here, just grownups confident that a meal would arrive even if it was late. Sorry, no bread. No complaints.
The next major stop was in the shadows of One New York Plaza, home to one of …