Feeding the hungry - the lines grow at N.Y.C. soup kitchens

Willie, bundled up in a light-blue parka he picked out of the trash earlier in the morning, waits in line at a church soup kitchen in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

''I don't live anyplace,'' he says. ''I don't know what I'm going to do in the winter.''

His immediate concern is that he get lunch today at this program, sponsored by the small and none-too-affluent Episcopal parish of Holy Apostles Church at the corner of 28th Street and Ninth Avenue.

The hunger of New York City's poor and homeless is chronicled frequently in newspaper and task force reports these days. It is called a growing crisis. Social workers point to the increasing number of emergency food programs. Churches, synagogues, and community volunteers give detailed accounts of the poverty and malnutrition they see daily. City officials decry past cuts in federal assistance to the needy.

And the issue is a national one. Congress has held bipartisan hearings on hunger. In September, President Reagan formed a task force to study the problem.

At Holy Apostles, precisely at 11 a.m., the crowd that has gathered begins to file inside. The meal they receive may not be gourmet, but it's warm and nutritious: vegetable soup, hot dogs and sauerkraut, a slice of cheese, half a bagel, and some pineapple.

For some, the free lunch will be their only full meal of the day. Like Willie. Does he have any work to earn some money for food? a visitor asks.

''I was just getting ready to ask you for a dollar,'' he says. Then he laughs. ''I'm kidding. I'm a cook by trade. I would like to get a job.'' He hasn't found work since he came to New York from California.

Willie looks up again from his meal.

''Do you know where I can get some help (to find a job)?'' he asks. ''I can cook almost any kind of food.''

Eddie is a Vietnam veteran who occasionally does get part-time work. He has a place to live - in fact, it's a three-room apartment, he says. He doesn't come to the soup kitchen every day. When he does, it is ''to save money for rent.''

One woman, dressed mostly in black, has many of her belongings, including keys and a large Bible, attached to herself by shoelaces and small chains. When she finds someone to listen, she begins to talk in a stream-of-consciousness torrent. One hears about fires and swimming lessons, homes and lost family.

These are some of the people who come to soup kitchens in New York. At Holy Apostles, the Rev. William A. Greenlaw estimates that 80 percent of the some 450 people who come in each weekday are homeless. They are mostly men, but there are some women and several children. They are from diverse ethnic and age groups. Some are drunk and unkempt. Others are sober, dressed in neat, if worn, clothes.

Statistics on hunger in this labryinth of a city are hard to come by. Too many people are without permanent homes and are not easily counted. But City Council President Carol Bellamy told a conference on hunger last week that some 12,000 people are fed through emergency food programs each day in New York. One of the city's 85 food pantries distributes 2,000 emergency food packages each month. And 500,000 New Yorkers have had their food-stamp benefits reduced since 1981 due to federal budget cuts. Miss Bellamy says 60,000 families have been removed from the food-stamp program.

From the volunteer side of the soup kitchen, there is a sense of warmth from many of the clients.

''You get an incredible response,'' says one worker. ''It has really brought home to me that no matter how far gone someone is - whether he is dirty or clean , drunk or sober - everyone wants to be greeted with dignity.''

Can Willie and the others get out of the food line? Not all can, say those who work with them. Some of the clients are simply down and out, waiting for a chance. But others are mentally disturbed, or have drug or alcohol problems. A few seem content with their life as it is.

The Rev. Mr. Greenlaw, director of the Holy Apostles soup kitchen, says: ''These people are clearly the underclass, outside of the economic mainstream. A lot have never had anything like a full-time job. They don't understand the importance of punctuality, cleanliness, honesty. They need to build up a work history.''

Holy Apostles tries to help some street people by hiring several as kitchen workers. But reaching the whole community has to be a multifaceted process, he says.

Other advocates for the hungry agree. Donna Lawrence, director of the Food and Hunger Hotline in New York, points to the substantial increase in the number of private and volunteer-run food programs.

''The vast majority insist that they are not the answer'' to the hunger problem, ''but a response to a crisis,'' she said at a recent conference on hunger in the city. She and others say there is a need for public action at the city, state, and federal levels to stem the problem.

The city has several programs to aid the hungry, officials respond. It administers the serving of some 115,000 meals a day at shelters, day-care centers, Head Start programs, and senior centers. When the federal government cut off funds for food-stamp information programs, the city and state restored some of the services.

In response to other federal cuts, the city has also expanded its meal programs to the elderly. The city has allocated $160,000 to Food for Survival Inc., a nonprofit group opening a food bank to serve the city's shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens. The money will go primarily to rent a 35,000 -square-foot Bronx warehouse.

Michael J. Dowling, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, reports that a statewide program to allow the elderly and disabled to use food stamps in restaurants will begin in early 1984. A similar program for homeless people in New York City and two outlying New York counties is under consideration.

But many say such efforts are not enough. Council President Bellamy has asked Mayor Edward Koch to declare a hunger emergency. And she has proposed that an office of food policy be created to act as a coordinator for the city's food programs, which are now administered by some 25 agencies.

A recent report by the Coalition for the Homeless charges that the mayor and other city officials are ''indifferent'' to the problem. Such accusations are denied.

''Obviously we are very concerned and doing what we can with available resources,'' says James A. Krauskopf, commissioner of the city's Human Resources Administration. He urges more attempts to broaden federal support for such programs.

At the Holy Apostles soup kitchen, the lunch line closes at 1 o'clock. One man pushes his empty tray back and calls out to a volunteer serving food.

''Are there any seconds?'' The volunteer shakes her head no. He bursts into friendly laughter. His companion turns and says, ''He's laughing, but he's serious. He's still hungry.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.