In Berkeley, meal providers get away from the idea of charity and refer to the people they serve as “guests.” Lydia Gans photo

by Lydia Gans

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s no secret that the economy is a mess, that hunger, homelessness and illness are stalking the nation. The newspapers and television carry stories of children going to school hungry, unemployed breadwinners suffering depression, families doubling up in small apartments or living day to day in motels.
At the same time, there is less relief coming from both government and private funding. Stories of the Great Depression in the 1930s tell of compassionate people reaching out to help the poor. Photo archives contain moving black-and-white photographs of long lines of desperate men and women at soup kitchens. Are we seeing a parallel situation today?
We don’t call them soup kitchens any more and some meal providers try to get away from the idea of charity and refer to the people coming to them as guests. And the guests today are likely to be a far more diverse population than in the 1930s.
Dorothy Day House has provided meals in Berkeley since the 1980s. They now do two breakfast servings, first at 6 a.m. to 50 or 60 people in the MASC shelter in the Berkeley Veterans Building, and then at Trinity Church, where they serve anywhere from 80 to 140 people, depending on the time of the month.
George Edgerton is the kitchen manager. He describes his responsibility to “get food from the Food Bank and buy what else is needed, make sure the food is prepared and gets to Trinity, basically recruit volunteers and make sure everything gets in the truck and to the meal on time.”
Afterward, he and his crew go back to the kitchen to clean up. It’s a pretty intense morning, especially the hour spent at the meal.
“At Trinity I wander around,” Edgerton says, “make sure there aren’t any skirmishes. We have security people there. We have a psychologist from City of Berkeley Mental Health so we have people to help us deal with problems.”
Edgerton talks about the people who come to the meal. “We have a large number of people that are mentally disturbed,” he says. “Not angry, mean people but they should be getting more help. But right now they’re out on the street. The other 50 percent, I would imagine that well over half have either drug or alcohol problems. Certainly a number of people that have a combination of those.
“We have a lot of people that really are living on the edge. They’re very nice people for the most part. They always thank us for fixing them breakfast and help us carry the food out. About 80 percent of our guests are men, 20 percent are women. Not all are homeless, a lot have been chronically homeless, but a lot now have a place but don’t have enough money to eat.”
Edgerton recruits helpers from all over. “In summer, a lot of high school volunteers, long-term U.C. students, right now a lot from Holy Hill, and the community.”
Joe Magruder has been volunteering at the breakfast for seven years. Asked what motivates him, he says, “Forty years ago, I was a social worker in state hospitals and we were working very hard to get these guys out of the hospital and I feel very guilty about that because here these guys are, stuck out on the street now.”
For many the morning meal is more than just nourishment for the body. “There’s a number of people that can afford to eat other places but they like the companionship,” Edgerton says. “I think the fact that they can come into a warm, dry place for about an hour in the morning and have a nice hot breakfast, really makes a difference in the quality of the rest of their day.”
One of the regular guests introduced himself as Mr. Faulkner. He also helps out at the meals. He says, “I eat here all the time — just come here to get peace of mind. You might not get it, but if you’re just sitting here by yourself, you get peace of mind. I come here because I’m out on the street. This place here, Trinity Church, I don’t mind coming and having breakfast. It keeps me alive.”
He talks about people and times when it is not always peaceful. “Sure they might have issues, but we can work it out. End of the month, everybody gets hungry, have no money — it gets pretty crowded.”
He goes on to say, “I come here for dinner. Dinner’s more smoother, no arguments, everybody enjoying everything.”
It isn’t really hard to understand and sympathize if some people aren’t peaceful at 8:00 in the morning after a night on the street or in some miserable room. And for so many, the stress is exacerbated by physical and mental health issues.
It’s not even at its worst now when the weather is pleasant and people can linger outside in the parking lot with a cup of coffee. It can be miserable in winter, when it’s cold and rainy and still dark at that time of morning and many more people are huddled inside the dining room.
Getting enough nourishing food for the increasing number of people in need is also a problem. Money from private donations and from the city is limited, while supermarkets, worried about lawsuits, throw away huge quantities of food instead of donating it to programs for the hungry.
A woman calling herself Flower Child has been coming to breakfast at Trinity since she became homeless three years ago. She described the breakfasts. “They’d have hot cereal every morning six days a week,” she says. “Often they have eggs, occasionally they have pancakes, always bread and coffee.”
But she adds, “Now, three years later, there’s two things happening that aren’t good. One, they don’t seem to have enough food for everybody or they don’t have the same things they used to have. They used to have an egg every morning for everybody, sometimes two. Nowadays they don’t have eggs every day. They still always have the breakfast cereal and coffee, but other things there are less of.”
Another bad thing she has observed is more and more new people coming to the meals. “It’s crowded all the time now.”
Many expressed their gratitude for these meal programs. It is clear that as needed as these programs are, survival for the growing number of people who are homeless or on the edge is incredibly difficult.
There is not enough of anything — food, housing, health care or safe, stress-free places where people can relax and feel they are respected, whatever their condition. No human should be denied those basic needs and it is shameful that this is happening in our society.

The Bearing Witness Chronicles: Fly Like and Eagle

by Kisha Montgomery

I was walking down the street one day when I decided that it was time for my life to take off. I looked down and found my arms slowly flapping up and down. A homeless man saw me and began to sing, “Fly like an eagle.”
I began to laugh and flap my arms faster. He began to flap his arms and sang louder and louder until I was so far from him that he had to shout, “That’s right, baby … that’s right … fly.”