For the past four years, Karen Herring has spent the majority of her nights on the streets of Philadelphia. When there’s inclement weather, she will shift her transitory bed to Suburban Station, the only place she has at night to keep warm.
This is what Herring discussed when she sat down to a plate of mixed vegetables, chicken and mashed potatoes given to her at St. Vincent de Paul Center on Logan Street.
“I went from a fairly decent income to nothing,” said the 38-year-old Herring, who became homeless after losing her job with Verizon Wireless in 2007. “It’s a drastic change from what you’re used to. I’ve had to go into a lifestyle that I’ve never known, and that’s a little scary.”
Initially, Herring looked to welfare as her primary means of survival. However, without a permanent address, Herring said obtaining government money is no longer an easy process.
“Food had been provided through welfare and food stamps, but unfortunately when you get to the point of homelessness where you have no stability, it’s hard to send paperwork into the state. They don’t allow you to get food without an address,” Herring said.
Despite having no income or consistent welfare revenue, Herring said she rarely finds herself in fear of going hungry.
“Boredom, that’s the real problem, having nothing to do,” Herring said. “You find yourself eating unhealthy food because when you’re in the process of being homeless, it’s kind of difficult to have money available for quality food. You find yourself eating junk just to keep yourself alive.”
In search of a quality, home-cooked meal, Herring recently found herself walking up the steps of St. Vincent de Paul, one of Germantown’s many churches that offer food aid to residents in need.
“It’s a lot worse than it was a few years ago because people used to have jobs,” said Evelyn Rogers, St. Vincent de Paul’s parish outreach and emergency food director.
St. Vincent de Paul offers both an emergency food-aid program that sends residents home with a bag of canned goods and other food items as well as a soup kitchen-styled program that serves people off the streets plates of prepared food. Since the downturn in the economy, Rogers said she has seen a significant increase in unemployed people like Herring coming to the programs.
Fortunately for Germantown residents in need, the neighborhood is home to more than 10 different food aid programs working toward keeping people from going hungry.
“I think it’s beautiful, and it helps me a lot,” said Germantown resident Jessie Petty, who picks up food every Wednesday from the program offered at Faith Chapel of Philadelphia. “It’s a blessing to know in this neighborhood that you can get some food when you don’t have none.”
For many of the programs, participants must show verification of a home address within zip codes in or around Germantown. However, some of the food aid like the prepared meals offered at St. Vincent de Paul’s are available to anyone in need.
The majority of the handouts are funded by a combination of community donations and state grants. Philabundance, a rescue organization fighting to reduce food insecurity in the Delaware Valley, also helps.
“Philabundance gives us a grant, and within that grant, they give us a paper that we can order food from for each week,” said Gertrude Johnson, the director of outreach services at Faith Chapel of Philadelphia. “Thank God for Philabundance.”
Sponsored primarily by individual donors, Philabundance serves 11 different agencies within the Germantown area and “wants to provide easy access to nutritious foods for those who need it,” said Lindsay Bues, of the program which started in 1984 when resident Pamela Rainey Lawler saw a need for food rescue.
Lawler started by picking up bread and other prepared foods from bakeries and restaurants and dropping it off at local shelters. Today, Philabundance serves nine counties in the Delaware Valley.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, 23.4 percent of the Philadelphia population was “food insecure” in 2009.
The Second Congressional District of Philadelphia, which includes Germantown, has a 21.1 percent rate of “food hardship,” according to Food Research and Action Center data obtained between 2009 and 2010. In a survey carried out among households with children, the 2nd Congressional District showed a food hardship rate of 32.2 percent. (Food hardship was determined by the number of those who responded “yes” in a survey posed by the Gallup organization that asked, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”)
Both Rogers and Johnson, who head the food-aid programs at their respective churches, said families with children make up a significant portion of the participants. They said this is particularly true of families that have children with disabilities.
Johnson said there are a variety of reasons she believes so many people locally are without a steady supply of food.
“I think it’s drugs, No. 1, and then two, unemployment,” Johnson said. “I think it’s the habits first, but unemployment is increasing, especially in these neighborhoods.”
Johnson said Faith Chapel of Philadelphia feeds close to 750 people a month.
“Life is not easy. Everybody needs a lift. A lot of people couldn’t exist without these programs,” said Curtis Williams, a volunteer at Faith Chapel of Philadelphia.
It’s programs like these that Herring said keeps her and others struggling on the streets alive.
“They’re making a huge change in people’s lives. When you’re in the streets, you get hungry a lot while you’re out there. You want to get full to keep going basically,” Herring said.
While Herring is actively looking for a job, she is currently finishing out a computer program that she hopes will enable her to enroll in paralegal schooling. Once she finds employment, Herring has plans to come back to St. Vincent de Paul to volunteer.
“It’s good to give back to the community to who has given to you,” Herring said.
Grace Dickinson is a Temple University student. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.