On Thanksgiving St Bartholomew’s Church in New York City hosted an unusual dinner. Guests who paid $100 a head shared their holiday dinner with the homeless. This was an interesting experiment to say the least. About five hundred extremely diverse people eating dinner in a church. And apparently this was no slap dash meal prepared by the ladies guild. The meal was prepared by chefs from The Waldorf Astoria Hotel and The New York Palace. But what do we learn from this tantalizing event?
When I first read the story I thought it was delightful. I mean the men in their tuxes and the ladies in their gowns hobnobbing with men and women wearing layers of clothing who might not have seen a shower in days was heartwarming. The Reverend Edward Sunderland felt that this breaking of bread together made everyone “equal”. But did it?
Sunderland described this as a safe environment for those who to meet those who receive. This somehow implies it would be less than safe for the wealthy and poor to meet outside of this sanctified venue. And that implication seems to say the homeless might be inclined to assault the well to do and make off with their baubles and furs. Why would it be less safe for a wealthy business man to hand a few bills to a homeless man on the street? Would it be dangerous for a wealthy young lady to offer to buy a meal for a woman and her child who had spent the previous night in a shelter?
One of the guests commented that it didn’t feel like an event where there were a lot of homeless people. No, I am certain it did not feel like a soup kitchen. Nor did it feel like eating out of a trash can outside of a closed fast food restaurant. It most likely felt like a candle lit dinner prepared and served by the top staff in Manhattan.
In order to keep things running smoothly a host was seated at each table. Sunderland apparently felt this was necessary as each group was a little “high maintenance”. That way a close watch could be kept on the silverware too. I mean these people are homeless, right?
One guest seemed surprised when he noted “They’re intelligent people”. Yes they probably are. And not all homeless people are uneducated, mentally ill, substance addicts either. Many homeless people may have held good jobs and lived in nice homes with their families until the economy went bust and they were pushed out of jobs that were outsourced to other countries; jobs they were outsourced by the wealthy business owners who wanted to maintain their upscale lifestyles and did not give a lot of thought to the IT guy with a wife and two kids. Or the college students who were forced to take out loans to pay for educations only to find the job market was dried up and they still had to pay those loans off.
Now you probably feel I am being unnecessarily cynical. Maybe I am. However there were undoubtedly some wonderful moments as well. One homeless man stated that night he was “not homeless”. Maybe he had to return to the streets after the sumptuous meal but at least he went with a full belly and the feeling someone cared if only for a few hours.
The real heroes here are the chefs and the wait staff who gave freely of their own time to treat the less fortunate to a good meal and the respect of being served and treated as people instead of street shadows.
This was a good thing. I have no doubt there were well off people at the event who gladly shared the meal with the homeless. I wonder if they headed home feeling generous or did they think maybe there is more we can do?
The Coalition to End Homelessness estimated that in 2013 they were about 54,000 homeless sleeping in shelters in New York. That isn’t taking into account the number of homeless not sleeping in shelters. There are couch homeless, those fortunate enough to be able to spend a night or two on a friends couch or floor, the homeless who sleep in the street or city parks, the homeless who ride the subways all night sleeping upright on rocking trains. There are families, husbands and wives with children, who are forced to sleep in shelters.
This is not just a New York problem or even a large city problem. Homelessness is on the rise. And sooner or later we have to come up with an answer. We have veterans who risked their lives for our country and for other countries who have no home and wonder where their next meal is coming from. We have women who have taken their children and fled abusive homes who beg for change just to buy something to eat for their babies. We are talking about people who may have had jobs and still have job skills but can’t find jobs or only find jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.
One guest was quoted as saying “The idea of well-to-do and struggling people side-by-side is like having the lion and the lamb lay down together.” These homeless are not struggling. They are drowning. One dinner a year just isn’t going to solve the problem. As a nation we better come up with something soon. Because this American tragedy and we all need to work on a solution.
In this photo provided by Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, some of the culinary staff stand near the dessert table during a holiday dinner served at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Chefs from The New York Palace and The Waldorf-Astoria hotels provided roasted turkey, buttered mashed potatoes, red velvet cake, pumpkin cheesecake and other delights for a dinner where some wealthy New Yorkers got to sit down with some of the city’s homeless. (AP Photo/Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, Carolyn Gragano)