Feeding the homeless, as he faces losing his home

Cranford Coulter prepares food for the homeless in Center City from his home in Souderton.
Cranford Coulter prepares food for the homeless in Center City from his home in Souderton. (CLAUDIA VARGAS / Staff)
Posted: January 06, 2014

SOUDERTON A frigid snowstorm was looming, but instead of preparing for the hit, Cranford Coulter was busy chopping carrots, peppers, and fennel inside his Montgomery County home.

For the last 25 years, Coulter has been cooking up a massive batch of soup and taking it in Igloo coolers to feed the homeless in Center City. Snow, rain, or heat waves haven't stopped Coulter from giving hot, home-cooked meals to the hungry each week.

The city tried to stop him in 2012, but he won that battle.

"If I stop doing this, I'll die," Coulter said, his voice breaking. "This is the one constant I know."

Now, a new fight is threatening his ministry. His Souderton home, which on Thursday was filled with the aroma of a fresh roasted turkey and vegetables simmering in stock, is being foreclosed on and listed for a February sheriff's sale.

Coulter attributes the foreclosure to missed mortgage payments and the snowball effect of not being able to pay the accumulated amount owed.

His troubles started in October 2010 when doctors discovered he had an infection on his neck that had spread to his spine. He eventually lost his online business selling Orthodox Christian icons. Then, in July 2012, his wife lost her job as a bank teller.

Coulter has since launched a $15,000 fund-raising campaign to help him keep his house. So far, he has raised more than $8,000 from family and friends.

Even as he is threatened with the loss of his own home, Coulter has continued to make soup for more than 100 homeless people who show up each Thursday on the Parkway, across from the Family Courthouse.

"It could be a monsoon, and he would be here," Anthony McNeal said, as he shifted on his feet to keep warm Thursday evening.

When Coulter arrived last week, nearly an hour late because of the snow, he and his friend and fellow volunteer Deacon Herman Acker, of St. Philip Orthodox Church in Souderton, unpacked the ministry car and started handing out cups of soup and the pureed vegetables.

Raves for the soup

"Hey, Tony, you've got to try this," Coulter told one of the two to three dozen guests who showed up mid-snowstorm to get a warm meal. "It's pumpkin mashies."

The men weren't crazy about the pumpkin, turnip and yucca mash. But everybody raved about the turkey vegetable soup.

Volunteers from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Elkins Park, who have been helping Coulter's ministry for the last two years, brought oranges, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, and an Eastern European traditional New Year's sweet bread.

Some of the men are regulars at the Thursday night scene across from the courthouse. Greg Olsen has been having Coulter's soups for 14 years "on and off."

"I didn't think it would last this long," he said Thursday evening after grabbing a cup of soup and making his way back to his makeshift home under a bridge.

Coulter's mission in Philadelphia, a place he has never called home, came by way of Minneapolis, where he grew up and attended Bible college.

The one constant

While in college, he met his wife, Bethann, a Harleysville native, and moved east in 1977 to be close to her family. He says he has held about 40 jobs since then, but the one constant he has had is helping those in need: first as a chaplain at Graterford State Prison and, starting in 1989, as a meal provider to the poor on the Parkway.

He called his ministry the King's Jubilee and started by taking food to LOVE Park. He later moved to Sister Cities Park, and for the last decade, he has been in front of the Family Courthouse at 18th and Vine.

Coulter has regular food donations, from area farmers and church friends who contribute weekly to his ministry.

For the McGraws, who met the Coulters at St. Philip's, making spaghetti for the ministry "became part of our family tradition," Phillip McGraw said.

Like many of those who volunteer with Coulter, the McGraws wish they could do more to help him save his house and ministry.

"We ourselves are stretched financially," said McGraw, who has nine children. "If not, we would try to help. I really hope enough people come through."

Since his infection was discovered in 2010, Coulter has had serious complications, including kidney failure and several strokes, which he said led to the downfall of his business.

In July 2012, Coulter's wife was let go from her job as a teller at Univest Bank in Souderton and lost her health insurance.

That was around the time that Coulter and a few other homeless advocates sued Mayor Nutter when the city tried to place a ban on feeding the homeless outdoors. Coulter and his codefendants won, and the city has since moved on from trying to ban outdoor feeding. It is instead working to build a new central indoor venue that various meal providers could use.

His wife's unemployment checks weren't enough to pay for their $1,100 monthly health insurance premium, plus their $1,500 mortgage payment.

After three missed payments, PHH Mortgage Corp. started the foreclosure process, he said. Coulter said he has been trying to work out a payment plan with the bank, but has been frustrated by what he describes as a lack of cooperation.

PHH Mortgage spokesman Dico Akseraylian couldn't speak specifically to the Coulters' situation, but he said the bank had tried to work with borrowers so they didn't lose their homes.

Hoping

On Friday, the Coulters' home was still listed on the sheriff's sale roster.

Coulter hopes that the bank will work with him to save his house and, in turn, his ministry of feeding the poor.

"I just know that this is what makes me happy," Coulter said, holding back tears. "I'm not anything special."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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