The long, hungry line at Our Daily Bread


THE FIRST GUY in line wore a woolen cap in the stifling humidity and said he hadn't worked in maybe two years. He wasn't entirely certain about dates. The guy behind him shivered and twitched in the heat and the muggy rain, as if tiny time bombs were bursting inside of him. They'd been standing here since 7. Now it was 9 o'clock, still an hour and a half from mealtime.

A few feet away was a guy in a Northrop Grumman cap, out of work for three years, next to an unemployed construction worker and a homeless ex-truck driver and an ex-bricklayer standing in front of a woman in a silky skirt sitting on a piece of cardboard on the ground that offered her slim protection from the rain water rolling down this alley between Charles and Cathedral streets where hundreds lined up for food, as they do every day, outside Our Daily Bread.

Everybody says they'll have to be moved. There are roughly 900 of them waiting out there for breakfast and lunch every day but, as everybody knows, the poor are such an annoyance, and the city's got such swell plans for the neighborhood, so the poor may have to give up this grand parasitic life of theirs, with the free food, and the glorious times standing in this dank alley with the rain falling now, and then the heat, followed by the anger of each season.

"It's very convenient," said Sister Gwynette Proctor, director of Our Daily Bread, as she glanced along the line yesterday, "to scapegoat the poor. And that's what's happening. But they didn't create the lack of jobs. They didn't create the lack of treatment centers."

It is, however, the fundamental rule of all life: When confronted by problems, find someone to blame. In this case, it is the poor's fault that they intimidate non-poor people wishing to use the neighborhood, and it's the poor's fault that someone commits crimes in the neighborhood. (In fact, it probably is the poor committing such crimes. Rich people committing crimes tend to commit them in boardrooms or bank offices, where fewer can take notice and the weather's invariably nicer.)

The city's side of this isn't hard to understand. For several decades now, it has steadily yielded ground to the poor, the substance abusers, the sick and deranged, the criminal element, the takers of tax dollars.

But it's a boom time in America, and a time for cashing in while we can. The waterfront's thriving from Federal Hill to Canton, but there's all that juicy real estate a few blocks inland, just waiting to be profitably reborn. Our Daily Bread's right there in the heart of it, across from the Pratt Central Library, with the city talking about theater projects, and offices, and new apartments -- but who's signing up when there's 900 poor people out there every day?

So now comes a new idea, which business people have discussed with Associated Catholic Charities, operators of Our Daily Bread. In return for moving Our Daily Bread from Cathedral Street, business leaders would build a more comprehensive facility that would draw the poor away from downtown and provide medical care, housing, schools and job training.

It's been tried in other cities. In Orlando, a 3.3-acre campus holds as many as 200 families and 500 single men. It's separated from the downtown nightclub district by a highway. How appealing: We continue to give the poor what they need, but now they're in one place, they're out of sight, they're not dragging down real estate values, and they're not intimidating those who wish to attend the theater and such.

But how thin is the line between convenience and intimidation? As The Sun's Gerard Shields reported yesterday, a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty called "Mean Sweeps" detailed growing anti-homelessness laws in 50 cities, such as Atlanta, which made homelessness a crime in order to clean up the town for the 1996 Olympics.

"These people aren't going away," Sister Gwynette was saying yesterday. She meant, in a general sense. She mentioned 14,000 people expected to be taken off welfare rolls next year, under the assumption that they've lived off the dole long enough and will have to find work.

"Some of them won't," she said. "And so we'll see more children out here. We serve a lot of children, particularly now that school's out. We try to move them to the front of the line, so they don't have to stand with the others. We feed nearly 150 children a day."

She said nobody's approached her yet about the idea of "campus" living for the poor. She understands the argument, but thinks it's a little more complex than imagined.

"Probably 40 percent of the people on line," she said, "are working poor. They have jobs, they're just not jobs that pay enough for food. These are people who work downtown, and have to make a choice between getting food from us, or paying their rent. Do you put those people on a campus?"

Now it was 10 o'clock yesterday morning. The line stretched from the Charles Street side of this alley all the way to Cathedral Street.

"I do no advertising," Sister Gwynette said. "They just know to come here."

And even a campus across a highway isn't going to contain them all.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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