A few minutes before noon, Kirk Hallett stood at the door of the Soup of Saint Francis of Assisi.
A woman walked over to him from across the parking lot, and the 71-year-old held out an offering in a styrofoam tray: chicken, rice, beans and broccoli, all from the Central Food Bank of Pennsylvania and cooked by volunteers at the church.
People showed up throughout lunchtime in the sweltering July heat. Most were walking. Some have brought children. Another man parked his car, then crossed the parking lot with a cane. Many know Hallett by name, and he also knows some by name.
Hallett began volunteering in Saint Francis over 20 years ago. He says it changed him. He quit his job as a construction equipment salesman and formed a non-profit organization called the Joshua Group which aims to help children succeed in school.
For him, volunteering at the soup kitchen is part of the same mission as educating children.
“Our philosophy is that education is the anti-poverty agenda that works,” Hallet said.
Many of the same children who do not have access to early childhood education also do not have reliable access to food, he said. It is estimated that one in nine children lives with food insecurity, which means they have limited access to nutritious and safe food, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Hallet wants to help people be successful, but in many cases the best he can do is offer food and a little chat. He does both by roaming the city daily.
“It’s not just about moving around to distribute meals,” he said. “It’s about relationships, and I’m glad we can. Somewhere along the line, God is present with us in this conversation.
Hallett is one of the many people who make sure food bank donations get to those who need them. He and others say food awareness works, but there are limits to what it can accomplish without additional resources such as affordable housing and an investment in the city’s schools.
At Downtown Daily Bread in Harrisburg, Director of Development Susan Cann said her team sees many people who have lost their homes. For them, food is often their first need, “but they need so much more”. Crisis workers, medical personnel and others can provide some of this.
“Sometimes people are more ready to hear about different services,” Cann said. “Or they hear about it, it doesn’t work the first time, but at least they know it’s over there.”
Cann estimates that half of the people who visit the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen are living with a mental illness. Many have problems with drug or alcohol use. Almost one in ten are military veterans.
She said the demand for food had declined slightly over the past year. She believes COVID-19 stimulus money played a role. But lately the demand for food has increased.
There is also an urgent need for affordable housing, Cann said.
She mentioned that after the Dauphin County District Attorney ordered police to clearing out a long-standing tent camp near the Market Square Presbyterian Church, the situation has become more difficult for people who have no place to call home.
It became during an afternoon spent with Kirk Hallet.
After distributing food for an hour at the soup kitchen, he dropped the tailgate of his 20-year-old van and filled it with meal trays.
He explained that COVID-19 has changed his approach. They had to shut down the dining room. Food was not getting to people. That’s when he found his route around Alison Hill.
That day, like most weekdays, Hallett dropped off about 20 meals at a house where military veterans live. Then he stopped at a street corner where people gather to distribute meals to anyone who wants them.
There he met people who had been displaced after the police broke up the tent camp. With no options available near the church that had helped them, some of them had crossed Paxton Creek to Alison Hill.
Others ended up at the next Hallet stop, about a mile away, camped under the Mulberry Street Bridge.
For Aisha Mobley of Christian Churches United, the space under the bridge is one of the few ‘sanctioned’ encampments where she can direct people – which means the police know it and social workers visit it regularly.
She explained this by removing the boxes from her van. She was helping a young man move out after being forced out of the Presbyterian tent camp on Market Street.
Mobley, who served as a social worker for the Harrisburg School District for 12 years, said there are links between a poorly funded education system, a lack of public health resources and issues of poverty, food insecurity and homelessness in Harrisburg.
The pandemic has made these problems worse, but has also led to more direct outreach with people.
After shelters closed last spring due to concerns about the virus, Mobley launched a campaign to provide face masks to people. It quickly turned into a larger effort to help people with things like laundry, housing, and employment.
Mobley said most people under the bridge have behavioral or physical disabilities, which means they are on or qualify for Medicaid benefits. This is something she can help.
As she handed out sandwiches, muffins and fruit to people, she said providing food was a great way to build confidence and get to know someone who could benefit from additional services.
Hallett also mentioned it. During his drive, a man told Hallett that a 67-year-old woman who lived in a tent near him was showing signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Hallett referred the man to a friend who could put the woman in touch with services.
Like Susan Cann at Daily Bread, Mobley said the biggest challenge was housing. The rooms are hard to find. Rooming houses cost on average about six hundred dollars a month. For Medicaid recipients who find a room, that leaves them about a hundred dollars for necessities.
“So when do people say they choose to be here?” It’s the choice they make to be here, ”Mobley said.
For Pete Sollenberger, this is not the choice at all. He was staying with his family until a few months ago. When this situation changed, he began to sleep in his car.
Eventually, the 61-year-old army veteran built a shelter from several tarps placed under the bridge.
The longtime construction worker explained how injuries and health issues made the job difficult. “I prefer to be in a house or an apartment,” he said, adding that he was trying to find accommodation. “Believe me. I’m too old for this.
Sollenberger said he was grateful for the abundance of food in Harrisburg and for people like Kirk Hallett and Aisha Mobley.
“They come every day,” he says. ” It’s really appreciated.
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