Philly food pantry's growing clientele irks neighbors

At the Bridesburg pantry , Barbara Lipham (left) of Port Richmond and her granddaughter Gianna Tees, 5, get corn from volunteer Zenola Davis. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
At the Bridesburg pantry , Barbara Lipham (left) of Port Richmond and her granddaughter Gianna Tees, 5, get corn from volunteer Zenola Davis. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 31, 2012

On the tight block of Kirkbride Street in Bridesburg, doing good is being perceived badly.

The misfiring economy is sliding more working-class people toward poverty, and the food pantry at the United Methodist Church near the center of the block is inundated with hungry people.

Neighbors, in turn, are growing uneasy with the increasing crowds, and complain about trash, parking problems, and "outsiders."

Meanwhile, pantry volunteers respond with incredulity, resentful of the backlash they absorb.

It's a dynamic playing out throughout the region, antihunger advocates say: Need grows unabated, pantries overflow, neighbors protest.

In the mind of some advocates, such conflicts stem from veiled prejudice against the poor; defending themselves, community members say it's simply a matter of being inconvenienced.

"For the neighborhood, there's nothing worse than the sight of people shambling up in the morning," said Kevin Duane, 53, a longtime Bridesburg resident who uses the pantry weekly.

"Nobody wants to be reminded of hard times," said Duane, a divorced "struggling writer" who works mostly as a day laborer. "You live near poor people, it's bad for property values. It's 'NIMBY-ism [not in my backyard].'

"But this pantry is effectively our only food."

The pantry is open on Tuesday for more than three hours in the morning, then for 90 minutes in the evening. Beyond that, it accepts deliveries three times a week.

With parking at a premium on the narrow street, the delivery trucks and the pantry clients' cars take up a great deal of space, residents say.

Then there's the crowd that enters and exits the church. Neighbors say clients curse, smoke, sit on steps, even relieve themselves in yards.

"How much do you want to know how much we hate it?" neighbor Julie Williams, 41, asked. She said people walked onto her property and peered into her windows: "Relations with the church and the pantry have declined. The pantry doesn't need to be here - end of story."

Pantry officials say the complaints are exaggerations or outright lies.

"They don't like us," pantry coordinator Florence Rodgers said. "They grasp at straws to get rid of us. But this is a church. This is a ministry. Get over yourselves."

Since the pantry opened in 2009, the number of families registered has grown from 32 to 1,000, Rodgers said.

"There's no end in sight to the need," she said.

Rodgers said residents of Bridesburg, a mostly white community, are offended when they see people from other areas frequent the pantry. "If you talk to the neighbors, all the customers we have are black, which is not accurate."

The pantry draws from the neighborhood as well as from Fishtown, Port Richmond, Juniata, Kensington, Frankford, and Holmesburg.

Residents don't understand that as the economy stagnates, more working-class people fall into poverty, including many white people, pantry workers say.

"People don't believe that many white people are poor," said Barbara Capezio, a pantry volunteer. "They only believe it's 'those people.' "

In the escalating hostilities between the block and the pantry, neighbors complained about trash cans with the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and sent photos of trash to Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency that supplies food to the pantry.

State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.) has also been involved. "The pantry has grown to such a degree there's a problem with logistics," Taylor said. "We've been working with them for six months to keep everybody happy. It's a constant battle."

Neighbor John McCann, 35, resents the implication that he and others on the block are devoid of mercy.

"I know we sound like an evil block, but this is affecting my life," he said. "I would never have bought this house if the pantry was here when I did. Imagine selling now. Who'd want to live here?"

Similar problems percolate in Mayfair, another working-class community in the Northeast.

The number of people frequenting the Feast of Justice food pantry at St. John's Lutheran Church on Tyson Avenue increased 24 percent from 736 to 912 in the last year because of the sputtering economy, according to Pastor Tricia Neale.

"The neighbors have had a number of issues on how we handled the growth," Neale said. Unlike in Bridesburg, the Mayfair pantry is on a large street and has a lawn on which clients gather.

Neale said residents had complained about increased trash at the pantry. She added that they use complaints about garbage as a way to denigrate the pantry's existence.

"There's a feeling among the neighbors that we're serving people from North Philadelphia, when that's not who we serve," Neale said. "More than 80 percent of our guests are from our zip code."

Neale said the recession, officially over for three years, nevertheless persists in Mayfair. But not everyone understands that, she added.

"This is a new kind of poverty people haven't seen," Neale said. "They think it's single moms on welfare who use cupboards. Our largest increase in guests is among seniors - a 30 percent rise."

Joe DeFelice, president of the Mayfair Civic Association, insisted that trash is the main issue with the pantry.

"If someone's trying to make this into class warfare, Mayfair's not the place," he said, adding, "we've seen better days."

Antihunger advocates say similar anti-pantry problems have cropped up in New Jersey.

In 2008, Philabundance was compelled to move a program, called Fresh for All, which distributed produce outdoors in Willingboro, according to spokeswoman Marlo DelSordo. "It's the only time we were ever forced out at the behest of a community," she said.

A Willingboro official disputed that account, saying Fresh for All was not allowed a permit because of zoning problems.

DelSordo disagreed. "I'm not sure how you don't conclude it was a not-in-my-backyard situation," she said. "We had registered 1,000 households in need there."

Similarly, in 2010, the Touch New Jersey food pantry was told to vacate a building on the grounds of the former Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Mount Ephraim because the church was merging with another and needed extra space for parking.

Pantry director Debbie Realey said the real reason was that neighbors were complaining to the church about the throngs of needy people showing up.

As it happens, the parking lot was never expanded, and the building in which the pantry sat was never razed.

A Camden Diocese spokesman said the merged church (renamed Emmaus Catholic Community Church) didn't need all the parking after all. The spokesman acknowledged that neighbors had complained about the pantry, but stressed that that wasn't the reason the pantry was evicted.

"It took me two years to find another pantry space, in Camden," Realey said. "The mentality in Mount Ephraim was that no one could have been hungry there. And people just didn't want the pantry."

In Mount Ephraim, as in Bridesburg, the presence of a pantry - especially during high-volume hard times - can be prickly business.

"When you voice your concerns, people think you're mean," Bridesburg resident Yvonne Hawthorne, 47, said, referring to the United Methodist pantry.

"I'm all for helping someone. Just not right here."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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