Hunger is a world wide issue these days, not only in remote parts of the world but here in the United States, indeed here in our own city. Berkeley has a number of churches and non profit organizations giving out food baskets or serving daytime meals for people with what is called 'food insecurity'. But homeless people, with no place to prepare or store food, have a special need, that is for a morning meal. Only one organization, Catholic Worker/Dorothy Day House has for 30 years been providing a free hot breakfast every morning.
For the past six years or so the meal has been taking place at Trinity Methodist Church on Bancroft every morning except on Sundays when it happens in Peoples Park. In June the church management informed Dorothy Day House that they would have to move. There were problems, according to Pastor Mark Cordes, the program was 'beyond our capacity to support”. Since then they served briefly in Newman Hall and are currently at First Congregational Church but their stay there will end in mid August. The picture looks bleak after that. If no indoor location for the breakfast can be found it will have to be served outdoors.
J. C. Orton, long time dedicated advocate and worker in many programs for poor and homeless people is busy seeking a new space to serve the breakfasts. An outdoor meal on a warm summer morning is pleasant enough, even for someone who has been out on the street all night, but on a dark, rainy winter morning it is pretty dismal. Orton talks about what it's like. “It takes some of the pizazz out of the hot this and the ice cold that – and it's stressing, can't set up the tents in time. And it's 8 o'clock in the morning and being able to do it, (to) provide certain hospitality besides (just) take your food and run under the trees. … We need,” he says, “to have a solid place where the people know they can get a meal in the morning, where they're warm and dry, that it's stable, that they're going to be in a caring situation (where they) know they're going to able to get their breakfast to start their day.”
Depending on the season and the time of the month there might be well over a hundred people at the breakfast. (Most peoples' income comes from some type of government assistance program which isn't quite enough to see them through to the end of the month.) Some of the people are chronically homeless, some are experiencing an extended period of joblessness, a few might be in some sort of period of transition in their lives. For everyone this morning meal is of inestimable value.
Eric has been coming to the meal for about ten years. “It's been a good place to be,” he says. He's worried about the meal not being able to continue. “It's going to be straight chaos … everybody's going to be hungry”, he worries.
Art has only been coming for a few months. He is not worried. “I have faith that when I've had trouble in the past there's always some thing that comes through to help and there's a verse in the Bible – the verse is But seek ye first the kingdom of god in his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. So that has worked like a charm for me for quite a number of years. That's why I'm not afraid.”
Nancy has been coming more than 3 years. She was living and working in New York when everything crashed. She lived briefly in various places until she settled in Berkeley. About the breakfast, she says, “I think it's wonderful. I can't imagine not being here, being somewhere.” She's 58 years old, the experience of “homelessness is difficult, really stressful situation, trying to survive, don't know how you're going to reestablish your life."
Melissa, only recently became homeless and she too, talks about trying to reestablish her life. She is looking for work and hopes to be able to volunteer for the food program once Michael has been coming since '96 and he has a lot to say. “Coming here has been good for me for many years.” Many homeless people here, he says, have alcohol or drug issues “and even folks who aren't alcoholics or addicts in recovery who just have life issues of their own, first thing in the morning we all deal with our demons ...” Some people withdraw into themselves and others at times might become aggressive.
Malakai also has been coming for many years and he often helps at the servings. He talks about the people who come to the program, “the ones that can mess it up or the ones that can enhance the program.” And he has seen people change. People who “behaved like two foot animals started acting like people”.
The program, which at times could get quite chaotic, over the years has become more structured. Lassandro Wilson is staff member of the Dorothy Day program and head of security. He has developed a set of rules which he describes as “putting a boundary on certain things that the clients can and cannot do”.He spells it out some of the details; “There will be no fighting, no profanity, there will be no one coming here under the influence of anything high and I will see that you're high will feed you outside. … also no-one is allowed on the property where we're located now until 7:15. There's no dogs allowed inside the facility unless you have paperwork on your dog saying he or she is a service dog. Also once breakfast is all over I ask every client to make sure they clean up after themselves, leave the property immediately.”
Wilson has worked in the program for 15 years. “I started off as a homeless person,” he says, “and I worked my way up from being homeless to wiping tables to the head man. You can start with nothing and get something if you put yourself in the right position.”
Securing place to serve the daily breakfast is an immediate and pressing need. David Stegman is the executive director of Dorothy Day House in Berkeley. “We're like gypsies right now, he says, “it's kind of scary. Our program has been in Berkeley for thirty years. I feel anxious, (just) like the people on the street. This program has always had a place to go. Don't know what will happen, we're talking to a lot of people. I believe in God, I believe if you feel the spirit will happen, something good will happen. We're looking for some bridge and then a longer term solution. We can't keep running. People deserve better than that.”
Stegman and Orton are appealing to churches, club houses, community centers, any kind of facility that can offer their space for one hour each morning for our less fortunate fellow human beings to enjoy a warm meal. “We just hope” J. C. says, “that the community will find some way of rising to the occasion.”