Craig Stroman saw a hungry girl and it changed his life, and others'

Craig Stroman - founder of the nonprofit We Feed the Homeless Philly -stands alongside the long line of hungry men and women stretching out from 18th and Vine streets one recent Saturday.
Craig Stroman - founder of the nonprofit We Feed the Homeless Philly -stands alongside the long line of hungry men and women stretching out from 18th and Vine streets one recent Saturday.
Posted: July 11, 2013

IN LOGAN SQUARE, across from the Family Court building, at 18th and Vine streets, nearly 100 people clutched empty Styrofoam takeout boxes while waiting in line for volunteers to serve them meatballs, fruit, chips and water. Some used the boxes to fan themselves in the hot morning sun.

Craig Stroman sees a variation of this scene every Saturday morning. He started We Feed the Homeless Philly three years ago after a powerful epiphany during a morning commute. Since then, he has managed to cement a large volunteer base and some big-name support, despite official opposition to his and other groups' outdoor feeding programs.

"I feel We Feed the Homeless Philly is one of the most effective programs in Philadelphia," said Pastor J. Louis Felton, of the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, who has contributed to the organization.

The idea for We Feed the Homeless came to Stroman as he was driving to work in Center City after the February 2010 blizzard that dropped almost 2 feet of snow on the city. As he exited the Vine Street Expressway at 15th Street, where homeless people often camp on the embankment, he saw a girl who looked to be around his 11-year-old daughter's age emerge from a green tent surrounded by snow.

"That image haunted me, seeing that little girl," Stroman said. "It immediately hit me that I had to do something."

A few weeks later, Stroman recruited his sister and two friends to hand out 60 homemade sandwiches with chips, fruit and water. One hundred and fifty people showed up, and Stroman ran out of food.

"I never knew the need was like that," he recalled. "I said, 'I will never come out here again without enough food to feed everyone.' "

A grander scale

Stroman realized that he needed help if he was going to feed more people, so he spread the word about his nascent charity on Facebook and invited friends to join. About 70 volunteers signed up. His next feeding mission served almost 400 people in LOVE Park.

Since then, Stroman has developed a list of more than 500 volunteers. He sends out a mass email asking who might want to help on a given Saturday and enlists the first 24 responders. Stroman also hosts annual fundraisers for food and supplies. He has received donations, too, from individuals like Gerald Drummond, a chef for Stephen Starr Restaurants, and companies like Brown Family ShopRite.

We Feed the Homeless Philly officially gained nonprofit status in January 2011, less than a year after it started. Stroman's wife, Lucine, does the administrative work for the organization and runs its website. His sons and daughters, ages 8 to 16, come out on Saturday mornings, too.

Stroman rarely misses a week (only twice since January), and when he does, he makes up for it the following week by distributing food on Saturday and Sunday. He fits his volunteer work between his full-time job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, time with his family and singing in his Mount Airy church's choir.

To feed or not to feed

Stroman has said that he wants to put as big a dent in homelessness as he can, but it won't be easy. In 2012, there were 5,780 homeless people in Philly, according to statistics compiled by several U.S. government agencies. The number has decreased from 6,871 in 2006, but there are still a lot of hungry people out there.

Making matters more difficult, not everyone agrees on how to help the homeless. In March 2012, Mayor Michael Nutter announced a ban on feeding the homeless outdoors, saying that they should be fed inside, "away from the heat and the cold, the rain and the snow, the vehicle exhaust and all the other distractions of everyday city life."

Various religious groups went to court opposing the move, and a judge blocked the ban last June. The Mayor's Office later released a report detailing recommendations for feeding the homeless.

Stroman and others believe that they should be allowed to feed the hungry where they gather, instead of having to shepherd reluctant people indoors.

"It's not just about me feeding them, going out there and saying, 'Here, take this platter of food,' " Stroman said. "This is about them. We're trying to make a difference in their lives, by lifting them up spiritually, by giving them a sense of, 'There are people out here who care about you.' "

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