Feeding Fifth Avenue

As New York prepares for today’s St Patrick’s Day pageant, volunteers from the city’s Irish enclave of Woodlawn have been working tirelessly to help Manhattan’s hungry and homeless


Margaret Kelly sighs as the cast of broken people she has met flits across her mind. The former teacher from an old-money family who lapsed into chronic alcoholism; lost souls still caught up in the terrors of the Vietnam War; the Asian woman who skates around the city and uses her wheels to jump the food line; the man with the briefcase who solemnly swore that he would donate money to the Irish Center once he got back on his feet. She has handed soup to them all.

And Bryce, the only child she has encountered in her seven years volunteering on a food run that begins in the heartland of Irish New York and runs the length of Fifth Avenue, one of the most opulent and impressive thoroughfares in the world and the perpetual stage for the biggest St Patrick’s Day parade of them all.

Kelly has just returned from a wedding in Ireland. But a combination of habit and duty has prompted her take her place in the SUV as it speeds from Woodlawn towards Manhattan for yet another Monday-evening mercy act.

They are travelling in the opposite direction to the commuters leaving the last stop of the 4 train, deep in the Bronx, which has remained steadfastly Irish in mood and character. Crates of sandwiches, pastries and juice have been packed into the boot. Wedged between the middle seats of the car is a vat of chicken noodle soup that was collected from Mary’s Celtic Kitchen on Katonah Avenue. As ever, Claire McCartney is driving and, as ever, Joe Cremin sits in the front seat.

Two other vans from Irish Volunteers for the Homeless are making similar journeys, to Penn Station and down to the Lower East Side, but this is the Fifth Avenue gang. And it’s only when they begin to talk about the people they have been feeding that they begin to realise that they carry their stories long after they stopped feeding them. But Bryce is the person whose face they conjure most easily.

“The most loving little child,” McCartney says. “You could just eat him up.”

“His mum and sister were killed in a car accident, and they moved up here,” Kelly continues.

“They live in a halfway house on the Bowery, but his dad has to go back and forth to Jersey to work. And a few weeks ago his dad told me he has cancer of the mouth. And I was just thinking, Please, please don’t let anything happen to him.”

“Claire was bawling on the way home the first night we met them,” says Sharon Loane, another regular.

“Excuse me,” McCartney says. “I don’t think I was the only one.”

“It’s because he was really the only kid we have seen,” says Cremin. “That kid . . . I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He might be here tonight.”

At the first stop, a line of people has already gathered underneath some scaffolding. The group works quickly and efficiently, lining up the food on the footpath while Cremin and Loane set the vat on some steps and begin to ladle out soup.

“Careful, it’s wild hot,” Loane says. Her cut-glass Tyrone accent makes passersby look up and notice this improvised cafe. Some seem irritated by it, others puzzled.

Theresa and Kelly O’Brien, two American teenagers whose parents emigrated from Co Kerry, put chocolate and pastries in plastic bags while Dearbhla Crowe from Dublin hands out sandwiches.

A young man approaches Cremin. Gaunt and carrying a plastic bag over his shoulder, he appears a little distressed. “Just walked from 125th. Have no subway. Have to walk to Houston. I’m dehydrated.” He downs three glasses of juice, politely declines food and disappears down the avenue.

Some people take their food and are gone in seconds. Others wait to talk. One man wants to know what “Aisling”, inscribed on the door of the van, means.

A woman named Mary explains that she has an apartment and a job in one of the city’s landmark museums but that her hours have been cut and her rent has risen, and that she struggles to feed herself. It mortifies her to need to accept food. “It’s what I have to do now.”

A young African-American man serenades McCartney with the first two lines of Danny Boy . “The luck of the Irish!” he declares brightly. “Hey, I’m lookin’ for that pot of gold.”

The consul general of Japan is the guest of honour at St Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, which is holding a concert to benefit victims of last year’s tsunami there and of Hurricane Sandy. Whenever the heavy doors swing open you can just about hear the strains of Bach.

This is smack in the middle of one of the most storied boulevards in the world, and it isn’t just in the glittering shopfronts that you can see the money: you can see it in the bearing and the winter coats of many of the “regular” people walking past and hear it in the smart clip of heels as they stride through the crisp March night. Some stare quizzically at the tableau; others don’t look twice.

Occasionally, passersby have complained to the volunteers that they are encouraging clusters of homeless people to gather along the avenue, as if they were scolding the helpers for scattering breadcrumbs for pigeons. Another evening, though, a young woman walked up to Cremin, handed him $40 and walked on. Cremin has learned to be surprised by nothing on these nights.

Sharon Loane offers cups of soup to two NYPD officers standing at the foot of the steps. McCartney tells one man who accepts a cup that his new haircut suits him, that he looks like Jeff Bridges. He is pleased, bashful at the compliment.

And this is the thing: although a fair share of people have a look of Dickensian impoverishment, many others wouldn’t strike you as homeless. A lot dress neatly, some wear ties and all seem to be clinging to at least the illusion of a regular life.

McCartney tells a story of doing a food run one night when Barack Obama was at a function near Fifth Avenue. The cross street she normally drove down was barricaded, so she told a policeman on duty there where she was going. “I’m gonna let you through,” he told her. “I used to be homeless myself.”

In the atrium of the Sony Centre, Cremin walks around, rounding everyone up. The cafes have shut, but people are allowed to sit at the tables until 10pm. Some read, some play chess, others stare into space; all are killing time on a night when the breeze is lightly biting.

Cremin has an easy way of inviting people to line up for charity food, as if he were buying a round for acquaintances in a bar. “People have their pride,” he says. “It’s not an easy thing to accept food.”

He tells of once offering a sandwich to a man standing near but not quite in the food line. “You think I look f***in’ homeless?” the man said angrily. “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry,” Cremin replied evenly. Eventually the man took a sandwich. It vanished in seconds: he was famished.

Short fuse
Sometimes they have run-ins. One night they set up shop when it was pouring: everyone was drenched to the skin. Tayto crisps boxed in Ireland were on the menu, and because their best-before dates were in the European format one woman assumed they were long out of date. “You come all the way down here to give us old stuff,” she complained.

McCartney, who admits to “not having the longest fuse”, grabbed a bag of crisps, opened them and started eating. “Gone off? Off? You think I have nothing better to do than stand in the rain and hear this?” McCartney exclaimed.

If the volunteers have a point of pride, it is that the food they hand out is always wholesome and fresh. They like to think they give out better fare than the other charity vans they sometimes see.

It takes Cremin all of 30 seconds to encourage a group of 40 or so people out of the Sony Centre. He speaks in Spanish to a group of shattered-looking Mexicans. There are American accents and European accents saying thanks as people take soup and sandwiches. Some people almost run up the steps to devour the food on the spot. They are seriously hungry. “This is critical,” a black man in his 60s says softly. “Without this, I don’t eat tonight.”

If any food is left after the run, the volunteers leave it at an overnight shelter on a grim street in the Upper East Side that seems decades rather than a few kilometres removed from the overwhelming sense of order and privilege emanating from Park Avenue.

These shelters ring Manhattan, but not everyone wants to use them. Earlier, at the Aisling Irish Community Center, on the other side of the Bronx in Yonkers, Joe Carey, a retiree and food-run veteran, explained that many people prefer the streets to a shelter.

In his years doing the run he had become friendly with a former marine named Bill, who told him of his fear of the shelters. “He’s gotten robbed of what little he had. Lovely guy. It’s not drink or anything that got him . . . He just got unlucky. Been on the streets for years.

“We stand there for a couple of hours, and get frozen to the bone, but then get into a nice warm car and go home. This is their lives, though.”

Tonight, another veteran is the only person waiting at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. He is almost invisible in the shadows. He sits on a folding chair with a begging sign, his military badges on the brow of his ragged hat. He smiles and shakes hands with Joe, then takes some food from Margaret Kelly. He has little to say, and seems drained of all sense of possibility. He waves at the van as it moves out into the traffic.

McCartney and the others aren’t claiming sainthood out of this. “It’s just a few hours out of our week,” she says. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that New York City has about 50,000 homeless people, including 21,000 children. Sometimes you see them moving, ashen faced and bleary, through the vivid mass of humanity around Times Square and the theatre district. People behave as if they are aren’t there.

Irish Volunteers for the Homeless feeds perhaps 500 of those once a week. It is a small and almost entirely unnoticed gesture in a city with a flabbergasting number of bars and restaurants. But it is better than nothing.

And when the great pageant of Irishness dominates Fifth Avenue today, and everyone gets greened up and parties for a 250-year-old tradition that began as a response to homesickness, McCartney and the others can at least enjoy Ireland’s national day knowing that they bring a few moments of cheer to the army of lost New Yorkers for whom homesickness is just an aspiration.