Taking a hammer to hunger

Brian Jenkins, founder of Chosen 300 Ministries , pauses from his work on a new facility in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia.
Brian Jenkins, founder of Chosen 300 Ministries , pauses from his work on a new facility in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Groups work to offset proposed feeding restrictions.

Posted: September 27, 2012

Inside a century-old bank at 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia, a pair of carpenters cuts wooden beams for a loft in the big open space.

The workers are volunteers from a church in Boyertown, Montgomery County, who have given up their day to help Brian Jenkins convert the site into a 150-person dining hall to serve free meals to anyone who is poor and hungry.

It will be the third indoor meal center in the region for his nonprofit, Chosen 300 Ministries, and it comes at a critical time.

Over the summer, advocates for the homeless were locked in a standoff with the city over a ban on serving free meals on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Mayor Nutter supported the move, but groups such as Chosen 300 fought back in federal court, arguing that the ban violated their religious rights. They called the move politically motivated and tied to the May opening of the $150 million Barnes Foundation on the Parkway.

A federal judge blocked the city's enforcement of the Parkway ban until a final civil trial next year. The city is appealing the injunction.

While the matter plays out in court, both sides agree that if the city wants to eliminate the long lines of people queuing up for free meals along the cultural corridor of the Parkway, it has to come up with better indoor alternatives.

A task force assembled by Nutter last summer found that 23 groups offer indoor meals, feeding about 1,850 people. The task force suggested a new type of indoor space - "neutral, generic," according to Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Nutter - that anyone could reserve to prepare and serve free meals to the homeless and poor.

Some religious groups already are working to fill the gap.

Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St., which has a large dining room and newly renovated commercial kitchen, has offered its space to other groups, said Bill Golderer, its pastor. Two organizations that feed the homeless on the Parkway - Savings Saturdays and Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries - have moved indoors at Broad Street Ministry.

The dining hall that Chosen 300 is building would allow the nonprofit volunteer group to offer two meals a week in West Philadelphia.

Jenkins said the site will take from six to eight more months to complete. It will have a large area for sit-down meals; a preparation room to warm dinners; restrooms; and a loft with office space and a lounge.

Jay Hambleton, a general contractor who belongs to BranchCreek Community Church in Harleysville, Montgomery County, is supervising the work and, like the carpenters, donating his services.

"I have to do what I can to help," Hambleton said.

Chosen 300 is powered by volunteers who come from a network of 80 churches in the area. Volunteers sign up to cook meals, transport them to food halls, and serve people. They typically spend $600 a meal.

With the Mantua renovation, church supporters are doing most of the work.

Chosen 300 bought the Mantua building in 2010 for $240,000 and expects to spend nearly as much on mechanical work such as wiring and plumbing, Jenkins said.

The group already feeds people every day of the week - five nights at 1116 Spring Garden St.; two nights at Heart of God Family Worship in Pottstown; and, until the new site is finished, one night at Mill Creek Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

Every Saturday, volunteers also take to the Parkway to serve lunch to people. Jenkins said he has no plans to stop.

"Our job is not to force people to go inside," Jenkins said. "Our job is to meet people where they are."

But if he can persuade people to go inside for meals, he can offer help in other areas - job searches; access to computers; getting a new pair of shoes; or applying for transit passes.

Many of the people who turn to Chosen 300 live on the streets; others come from shelters. But just as many are individuals stretched so thin they may have to decide whether this is the month for paying rent or buying food, Jenkins said.

"They're people who are struggling to make ends meet," Jenkins said. "It may be the family who used to be making $50,000 a year who now makes $30,000."

At the Pottstown dining facility, which opened two years ago, 40 percent of the people who eat there twice a week are younger than 18, Jenkins said. Not far from the facility, he added, is a homeless tent city in the woods.

In the wake of the summer debate over outdoor meals, Jenkins invited Nutter to serve food with the Chosen 300 volunteers for a night. McDonald said the mayor would likely take up the offer.

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.

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