“The volunteers were dropping like flies,” said Nichole Guerra, Director of Development and Communications at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. That was back in February, even before the city-wide coronavirus shutdown.
Organizers from the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen knew something big was coming. The kitchen’s volunteers were already opting to stay at home. Though they usually had 50 to 60 volunteers a day helping with meals and social services at the soup kitchen, today only 15 volunteers are allowed due to restrictions. In the early days of the pandemic in New York, the volunteers who wanted to persevere and keep showing up were often the elderly and at risk.
“They went kicking and screaming,” Guerra said, when they finally had to suspend the volunteer program. Since they are not 100 percent volunteer-based, they have employed staff who kept the kitchen running, but they needed everyone, even people who worked in administrative roles -- like Guerra -- to pitch in on the floor. It was all hands on deck.
The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen has been around since 1982 in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea on 9th Avenue and West 28th Street, which has been around since 1844. The soup kitchen provides hot meals for anyone who needs them, and their Backpack Pantry Program provides food for guests, children, and families who don’t have access to food or the means to cook meals at home. This year, while many soup kitchens closed down due to the pandemic, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen stayed open and fought to close the gap.
Adapting to COVIDChefs from local restaurants who were put out of work due to the pandemic came to the soup kitchen to offer their services. “It was fantastic because they have culinary training, so with that experience they could do what maybe five untrained volunteers can do,” Guerra said. The chefs were paid with a stipend from the New York Community Trust.
In addition to hot meals and a food pantry, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen used to provide social services for the guests before COVID-19. Writer’s workshops, a computer lab, meditation, a space for guests to sign up for benefits, health screenings, and counselling were available to anyone who need them after they had eaten their meal. A lot of it took place in a small room at the back of the church, which as Guerra said, “is not COVID-friendly.” Most of the services have been suspended indefinitely. Nothing has been transitioned to a virtual platform since many of the guests do not have access to a reliable internet source.
“They’re not just coming in for a meal, they’re coming in and they’re treated with dignity and respect, and they have access to all these different programs,” Guerra said. “You not only get them off the streets and get them out of the elements for a while, but [they] often connect with other people, which is huge.”
Free counselling, toiletries, and the ability to use the church as a mailing address is still available to the guests.
An Increased NeedAccording to data provided by Feeding America, in 2018 the food insecurity rate in New York County was 12.2 percent. For 2020 it jumped to a projected 16.7 percent. The virus forced a third of the pantries in New York to close, which contributed to the huge increase in guests visiting Holy Apostles starting in April and May. While their hot meals stayed fairly steady at 1,000 meals a day, their pantry program soared.
“That used to provide food for maybe 840 meals a week. And last week we provided enough food to prepare about 30,000 meals a week,” Guerra said. “It’s a 3500 percent increase.”
Guerra thought they would “plateau” at feeding 500 families per week from the pantry, but the week before Thanksgiving they fed 600 families.
She estimates that half of the guests who come to the soup kitchen are experiencing homelessness, though probably more, since often people who are asked don’t want to share if they are homeless. And hunger doesn’t only affect the homeless, she says.
“A lot of people were living on the edge before COVID, whether they were in minimum wage jobs or low paying jobs. And they were kind of the first wave of people to get let go. So, COVID really just pushed them over that edge,” she said. “A lot of it is folks who never really recovered from the last economic recession. They never got to a place where they could build up a substantial emergency savings.”
Guerra says the kitchen made it through 2020 and they are in a “good groove” now, though they still can’t serve their meals inside. She is concerned about what lies ahead for them in 2021. The kitchen received a lot of donations and help from other organizations this year, which kept them going, and she worries that people will get donor and compassion fatigue, and that the help will drop off.
“We know that this crisis is not going to end the day that a vaccine is made available. There will be rippling effects,” she said.
The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen has seen many crises in New York before. They survived a fire in the 90s, 9/11, and Hurricane Sandy. “We knew when it would end,” she said. Guerra hesitates to use the word “unprecedented” since it’s been used so often to describe the coronavirus pandemic, but it is exactly what this is.
“We really need resources to respond to the huge need, and the need is going to last for probably longer than the pandemic.”
“They’re not just coming in for a meal, they’re coming in and they’re treated with dignity and respect...” - Nichole Guerra, Director of Development and Communications at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen.