Visit to an Atlanta soup kitchen: few come who aren't in need of a free meal

It was a cold Southern morning, with temperatures in the low teens. At the main soup kitchen here, the early arrivers got to stand on the stairway inside instead of out in the cold. In a gym on the second floor, chili and cheese and peanut butter sandwiches were being served free - no questions asked.

Were some of the men standing in the line winding upward to the gym (along with a few women and two young children) free loaders, able to pay for their food, as presidential aide Edwin Meese suggested recently?

''We have a few,'' says the Rev. Bill Henderson, a United Methodist Minister who runs the feeding program, at the St. Luke's Episcopal Church. ''I'd say 95 percent of the people who come through the soup line are people who need it,'' he says, seated at one of the tables with some of those who came to eat. He has only his own instincts - and several years' experience to guide him.

From conversation this writer heard as he stood in the line recently, the men knew details of where people without money could get food and temporary shelter. After lunch, two of the men said they were between construction jobs. One said he had a place he could stay, with friends; the other said he had an apartment.

Some in the gym looked as if they had been living on the street for quite a while. When a box of donated used clothing was brought out, a number of the men moved slowly forward to wait their turn to see if something fit.

''People may have a car and an apartment and not enough (for food),'' Mr. Henderson says.

Others have practically nothing. He told of seeing a woman in Atlanta picking carry-out chicken boxes out of a large trash bin and pulling remaining pieces of chicken off the bones to eat. She put the bones in a bag for soup. While he drove her downtown for the free sandwiches, she told him she had been living in a cardboard and tin shack for three years.

The Rev. Mr. Henderson also knows some men who sleep under bridges, and points out the window to where some men have been sleeping in a makeshift shelter.

As lunch was ending, a local court official dropped off a box of canned goods he was donating.

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