The homeless and the poor may not be as visible in Harford as they are in Baltimore and other large cities, but dozens of people in the county are in desperate need of a hot meal.
Responding to this need, 10 churches that belong to the Susquehanna Ministerium Association have opened up the Grace Center, which will provide free hot lunches every Tuesday between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, 615 Union St., in Havre de Grace.
"We have heard from our parishioners that there is a need," said the Rev. Rory Harris, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church. "There are people who are unemployed or on fixed incomes and in need of at least one hot meal a week."
About 25 people showed up on Tuesday, which Harris said was a good start.
"A lot of the people have to overcome the psychological hurdle of coming here. Some people have told us that they thought this was just for homeless people," he said.
Grace Place is the second center to offer free meals in Harford County. For more than a year, a group of volunteers operating from the BelAir United Methodist Church, 21 Linwood Ave., has served a hot lunchevery Wednesday.
Robert Varelli, who organized the soup kitchen at Bel Air United Methodist Church, said it took two weeks before anyone ventured in for a meal when it opened in May 1990.
"For the first two weeks we had nobody, and on the third week we only had four," he said. "Now, we are averaging about 80 meals a week. Last week, we served 92 meals."
Most of the people who take advantage of the free meals are seniors, said Varelli, but there is also a sizable contingent of unemployed middle-aged people. Families with small children have also appeared, he said.
Not all of the participants are unemployed or elderly. Some don't have full kitchen facilities or are limited to cooking on a hot plate.
"A great many people are unable to fix a full meal or have to eat in fast food restaurants. Others may betoo old to fix a meal for themselves," said Harris. "We want to makesure they understand they can come here and have a meal, no questions asked."
At the United Methodist Church, the meals are prepared from scratch, and there is always enough food for everyone, said Varelli.
"People can eat as much as they want. We make sure that nobodygoes away hungry," he said.
People coming to the Bel Air soup kitchen are from all over the county, according to the volunteers who serve them. But they also believe that there is a need for more than one soup kitchen in Harford County.
"We found out from the Harford Department of Social Services that 53 percent of the people receiving public assistance live in the Havre de Grace and Aberdeen," said Harris, who also serves as a president of Grace Place.
The 10 churcheshave pledged financial support for Grace Place and will provide volunteers to prepare the meals and serve them.
In addition to providing a hot meal, Harris said Grace Place will also offer counseling -- substance abuse, vocational, literacy and pastoral -- for those who would like it.
"We like to think of the Grace Center as a holistic center where we can serve a great many needs," he said.