It’s 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Germantown, the grass between the sidewalk and the street is still wet from the morning dew, houses are dark. The corner of Wayne and Chelten avenues is silent except for the click of the automatic light change. Shadowy figures emerge from the bushes of a house on Wayne.
Three men, once all strangers now more like brothers finish loading a beat up 1980s vintage van with boxes of donuts and carafes of coffee. A photo snaps silhouetting their figures against the vehicle and David Shively checks his watch – time to go.
On the highway, the old van shakes and rattles as it picks up speed. “Oh heavenly Father,” Shively begins thanking God for the 17 boxes of donuts donated by the local Dunkin Donuts the day before.
“When I first went out here, I couldn’t stop crying,” says Shively in a gruff voice. Then softly, “We weren’t made to sleep out here like these men and women do, it’s unbelievable.”
Our first stop is the subway concourse under City Hall. Shively says we have to get there before the police do.
The city is virtually empty by the time we make it to the subway station. Descending the steps, the stench of urine is hard to ignore. Armed with 20 bags of donuts each, Shively and his companions, Jullian DiSilva and Larry Bonner, start to lay the bags next to sleeping bodies curled up on cardboard beds.
Suddenly, a bullhorn echos in the concourse, “Get up, lets go!” shouts a Philadelphia police officer while his partner drives a battery powered golf cart through the halls.
The officers are cordial to Shively and his crew, even pointing out homeless people who haven’t been given a bag yet.
Brigette Fleming was one of Shively’s regular stops once.
“I was sleeping around 22nd and the Parkway in a baseball field,” she recalled recently, while sitting in her Germantown dining room. “I woke up and there was a brown bag laying beside me with a tract on it. It was a tract about God.”
After years on the street, Fleming now works two part-time jobs and is putting together a directory of services for homeless people in Philadelphia. She remembers waiting up all night to catch the Donut Man, the deal was – if you were awake, he would treat you to some coffee too.
“This man is truly amazing. Any place you could think of… he’ll find it and you’ll have a donut every Sunday,” she said.
Eleven years ago David Shively says God ordered him to start serving donuts to homeless people in Philadelphia. Shively, now pushing 70, makes runs through Center City every Sunday between 4 and 7:30 a.m. seeking people who are hungry for food and by extension, he believes, God.
Shively is the prime mover in a homeless outreach ministry run by New Covenant Church. He is a giver of bread, donuts and anything else donated to the effort by places like Pathmark and local bakeries.
He works a night shift job delivering pretzels and snacks to gas stations, and he runs the homeless ministry during the day. It’s unclear if he’s slept more than three hours a night in years
Among the shelters he serves regularly are the Germantown Y men’s shelter, Teen Challenge, Covenant House and Queens Lane Apartments to name a few.
After ten years of ministry as ‘the donut man’ on Sundays, Shively and his team have fed over 183,000 people, a total figured out by keeping track of how many bags of donuts they start with each time. Shively says it’s amazing to him when the numbers are added up, “last year we gave over $70,000 dollars worth of bread away.”
He says he would prefer to give healthier options but in most cases stores are not allowed by law to give away anything but bread products.
The morning run
After traveling to a number of known places for homeless people to sleep – Love Park, Logan Circle, Suburban Station and the Broad Street Concourse – Shively is breathing hard now. He has to rest after all the rushing around.
The van runs a similar route every Sunday, even stopping in seemingly random alley ways to serve people sleeping behind dumpsters. “She’s been there for years,” he says after making one particular donut drop.
Shively says he and his crew used to start earlier but, “since my heart attack, we moved it to four.” He chuckles and then coughs. Years of smoking over 4 packs a day has finally caught up with him. (Shively quit after the heart attack.)
Despite curiosity, Shively says he doesn’t pull back the covers of those cocooned in blankets and bags. He just says, “Donuts” and lays the bag next to them.
“There’s a guy on the parkway—all you see is a body covered in trash bags, I’ve never seen his face. I never cared to see his face, its just not necessary.”
But Shively hasn’t always lived this way.
For most of his life, Shively described himself as a “functional alcoholic” while raising two adopted sons, and running a florist business in Germantown. Helping people through the ministry saved his life, he says.
“Where would I be if He [God] hadn’t called me?” he wonders. “I’d still be in the bars, having hangovers, I’d still be driving with blackouts taking my kids camping.”
Shively says he tried to quit drinking plenty of times; he went into treatment and was sober for four years. But he fell back into it for another two years after that. He blames the devil and not working with God. Things got so bad, he almost lost his house and family
A friend worked on Shively for two years trying to get him into a church. Once he finally decided to try it, three visits to New Covenant Church was all it took and he was born again.
“I had a forty waiting beside my bed and after church I decided that I didn’t want it,” he says. “After a week or so I realized that I was no longer an alcoholic.”
Shively says he was healed as if removing some cancer from his body
“The Lord came and just took the addiction away,” he says
Hope in darkness
Shively says he hopes the ministry can introduce that kind of change for others.
“The whole idea of the ministry is to put a bag of donuts beside a sleeping person so when they wake up instead of saying thank you Dave they say thank you Jesus,” he explained
Beyond feeding people, Shively offers his own home to those without – but he says it’s not a shelter. He has space for six individuals and the rooms are by “invitation only.” Mostly it seems those who are committed to helping with running the ministry and frequent church are invited.
Shively says New Covenant has a 13-week program that teaches people about Jesus, “hopefully that helps them change and get their life together.”
But he has seen people lapse into old habits. “You can’t make a person give up that addiction unless they want to.”
The final stop on the Donut Man’s tour is Our Brothers’ Place homeless shelter. Over 100 men were already lined up at 7a.m., and Shively and his partners are right on time, as usual. Most shelters, Shively explains, can’t afford coffee so even the small cup of joe they bring is a treat.
Some men shy away from the camera, others say they want people to see them.
“I want my people to know that I’m begging for donuts and coffee,” says a man who identified himself as Butch. “I live under a bridge, and I need help.”
Our Brothers’ Place located under the I-95 expressway.
“I’m not ashamed,” says another man called John, his arms outstretched. “I work 60 hours a week. It’s not always about drug and alcohol.”
John says he was recently kicked out by his fiancee and this was where he landed.
Shively’s partners, Larry Bonner and Jullian DiSilva, have something to say on the topic too.
DiSilva is an African-American man in his mid-30s. He is quick to smile in his Sunday best of a v-neck sweater and starched collared shirt. He says he holds a college degree and comes from a wealthy family but things fell apart when he started hanging with the wrong crowd. Jullian experienced homelessness for a year in Philadelphia. He met Shively one morning three and a half years ago and started going to church regularly.
He now lives with Shively in Germantown and helps run the ministry.
“You gotta do something, I think about the people. It’s a big responsibility but it’s fun,” he says.
Contrary to popular belief, DiSilva says, most homeless people he meets are not unskilled. “I’ve met some very smart people out here, some are ex-fighter pilots, soldiers, doctors, I’ve met a lot of good people.”
On the other hand, Larry Bonner is the strong and silent type. Now in his mid-60s he walks with a limp but never fails to keep up. When he does speak, it is nearly a whisper.
He leans in close. “Without [Shively] I would prolly be dead by now,” he whispers, as his eyes start to glisten with tears. “I love him.”
Bonner says that Shively let him stay at the ministry about three years ago despite the fact they were complete strangers, he says it was the kindest thing someone has ever done for him.
The sun also rises
After all the men have received at least two donuts and a hot coffee, Shively and his crew hop back in the van with numerous parishioners he picked up along the way. Collected from various Center City shelters, they all head back to the Northwest to catch the New Covenant Church service.
By eight o’clock the morning sun is streaming in the van window, no more shadows or dark concourse hallways. Shively is calm now, no need to rush as he drives. Gospel talk radio fills any silences among the old friends.
After a minute of thought, Shively admits the sugary treat doesn’t really matter to the people he serves.
“It’s not the dumb little donuts, it’s the fact that somebody cares about them,” he says, as the old van rattles down the highway.