NEW YORK – The city lights are welcoming at night. On 33rd Street, opposite the train station and Madison Square Garden, a line of people has spread across the square. No, it’s not for a fight or a concert. People are waiting for food. A little bread, a hot coffee, a tea. The homeless people of the Manhattan neighborhood await the team from the National Philoptochos Society of the Archdiocese of America at their well-known appointment.
For four years, on the last Tuesday of the month, the Philoptochos’ members set up tables in the street and offer freshly cooked, hot food to those in need. The pioneer of this program was the Philoptochos of New Rochelle.
“The National Philoptochos is known for feeding the homeless for fifty years. But the idea for tables in the street which began 10 years ago belongs to the New Rochelle Philoptochos. They come into city the last Thursday of each month and we come in on the last Tuesday. We start at 5:30 in the afternoon and stay for about three hours. Usually the food runs out earlier,” said Jennifer Constantin, President of the National Philoptochos.
She continued, “We cook all day to feed these people fresh food. Meat stew (kokkinisto kreas), moussaka, pastitsio, and homemade pastries. Galaktoboureko, baklava, kataifi. We have two kinds to choose from. We do not use canned foods like other places do. We give fresh food from the heart.”
His Grace Bishop Sevastianos of Zela is always by their side. He told The National Herald that “the Philoptochos does not want to deal only with the administration but also to do something more personal. It is personal contact with people who are homeless. They are like us, but unfortunately we do not see them as people, we pass by them and we are rushing to go home. It is an opportunity for us to meet them, to talk to them, to embrace them, to show them that God has not forgotten them.”
The ladies of the Philoptochos start cooking early in the morning. They always prepare two choices for the meal. Meat and ladera cooked vegetables or chicken. They offer fruit, hot coffee and tea, bottled water and, of course, home-made desserts. They always have a bagel or bread roll with peanut butter or jam for the people to take with them for the next morning.
The people wait patiently for their turn. Women and men behind the counter, sometimes their children, and the Philoptochos ladies politely ask the homeless what they prefer to eat. “How do you drink your coffee? Do you want a baklava or kataifi?” “What is a kataifi?” someone asks.
The Philoptochos volunteers are not only there to feed the homeless. They talk with them, they share their news. Some have applied for government housing. “I’m waiting for the news, I hope they give it to me soon,” a lady will say, taking her food.
Reaching the end of the table, Constantin fills bags of essentials. Toothbrushes, combs, socks for the cold weather, tissues. “We try to find big companies that want to help and we get some things at good prices. These socks are of good quality and are odor-resistant, as some of these people wear them for a long time,” she told TNH.
As the winter approaches, the ladies of the Philoptochos gather other useful items such as clothes, jackets, pants, underwear for the cold winter nights.
“There is never any food leftover. We’re here with the rain and the snow. Always. In winter, we offer hot chocolate and in summer iced tea. If anything is left, we take it to another place. Nothing is wasted. It is very good to give something back to our fellow man. The police are working with us impeccably, they leave us, we have the freedom to stay here as long as we want,” said Efthalia Katos, a member of the Philoptochos.
Solitary people without anyone in the world, seniors and younger people, even families with young children looking for a hot meal.
“We’ve seen very strange things. Drug addicts, gay people, people with psychological problems. But we look at everyone in the eyes as if we do not see anything, nor do we ever take pictures. We do not want to judge anyone for anything. Because one day we will be judged. We do not know what happened to them and they ended up on the street. Nobody knows what brought them to that point,” said Katos and leaves us as her homeless friend approached her and told her their news.
The time goes by, the line is getting shorter and Bishop Sevastianos fills several bags of food, sweets, water and fruit, and places them in cartons.
When asked what all this is, he replies, “But now we’re going to Penn Station. We must give to those who did not come out so as not to lose the space they have found where they sleep.”
And he urges us to go with him.
We start off with four people holding as many bags as we can carry and enter the station looking down. Bishop Sevastianos knows the hangouts well and guides us. It is late. Some are asleep already.
“It does not matter. Leave the bag next to him. He will find it when he wakes up,” Bishop Sevastianos tells us.
“Thank you very much,” someone else will say as he rushes to give us a hug.
Perhaps faceless New York City sometimes has a face and is not as cold as its weather.