"I've never seen anyone oppose the dining room . . . or complain about people lining up in front," said Franciscan Brother Efrain Sosa, the manager. ''It's probably because we've helped a lot of people, and people from the neighborhood itself come here and eat."
More about why it works in a moment. But what a group of merchants and homeless advocates from Philadelphia want to know is this: Does the Emmanuel Dining Room's success travel? They fervently hope so, because they're using the Wilmington facility as a model for a similar kind of "dining room" in or around Center City. So far, though, it's turning out to be a tough act to follow.
The local group known as the I Do Care Foundation is up against it in two ways: It can't find a site, and it's having trouble raising money. As The Inquirer's Doreen Carvajal reported yesterday the I Do Care folks thought they had a property on South Street, just off South Broad, that would be improved by a soup kitchen. But the landlord backed out.
The cafeteria would be funded, in part, by selling meal tokens to the general public. People would be encouraged to give panhandlers the tokens, rather than the spare change that often winds up being spent on liquor and drugs. The idea is to discourage panhandling by taking out the profit motive, as well as to provide the city with its first seven-day-a-week meals facility for the needy.
Now, there's no guarantee that the I Do Care dining room wouldn't become a hangout, but the nearly decade-long experience of the Emmanuel Dining Room shows that such a facility can coexist peacefully and, indeed, become an asset.
For one thing, the Wilmington dining room is housed in a former firehouse that was slated for demolition. Hard by an elevated stretch of Interstate 95 that separates a working-class part of Wilmington from the downtown commercial center with its glass-and-steel high-rises, the soup kitchen sits within a block of a parochial elementary school, a shopping center and an area where brick rowhouses are under renovation - all without apparent ill-effect.
Each day, the dining room serves about 300 people for lunch and more than 150 for breakfast. Managing that kind of traffic requires understanding and firmness, according to the Emmanuel staff. "We don't encourage people to loiter," explained Brother Robert J. Artman, director of the meals program. ''We tell people to eat and move away, and people are pretty good about it."
There's a finer touch to getting cooperation from this clientele, though. It has to do with the way the two Franciscans stand in their long brown cassocks and rope belts and greet many of the diners by name. And with the fact that a half-dozen or so women with young children, as well as some older men, feel comfortable enough to join a mostly younger, male crowd each day. And it has to do with the volunteers from local churches who serve the meals as a way to fulfill their commitment to the poor.
"There is a sense of family here," Brother Efrain said. "Many of the people know each other. . . . A baby's born, they bring it to the dining room." Waiting in line just outside, Delores Duker, 34, an unemployed city resident, concurred. "People treat you pretty cool here," she said.
The I Do Care campaign hopes to borrow some of the techniques, and to develop the same commitment to caring for people that seems to have made the Emmanuel Dining Room work so well. They've gone so far as to line up a nun who's a former manager at the Wilmington facility to run their cafeteria.
What the I Do Care folks desperately need now is a landlord and, by implication, a neighborhood in or near Center City willing to give them a chance.