NEW YORK // Antoine Dupre, 53, has a job and a home but at least twice a week he clutches a meal ticket in the queue outside the soup kitchen of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan's Chelsea district. Mr Dupre is a member of the rapidly growing class of "working poor" and more people like him are being forced to draw upon the resources of charitable groups as the US recession worsens, say charity workers.
He was made redundant twice in the past five years and his job in telephone market research brings in only about US$20,000 (Dh73,400) a year - half his former salary - requiring tough economic decisions on the competing demands of rent, bills and food. Forget about health insurance, he said. "The food is hot and healthy here and they serve fresh vegetables and fruit, which I don't eat a lot of," he said at the Holy Apostles.
The menu on Thursday, a typical day, included pasta with chicken, cucumber and tomato salad, collard greens, bread and butter and an orange. The soup kitchen aims to provide 2,500 calories, an adult man's requirement for a day. The soup kitchen, which opened in 1982 and serves about 1,200 meals each weekday between 10.30am and 12.30am, prides itself on welcoming anyone "without question or qualification".
The Holy Apostles calls all their visitors "guests". They sit beneath stained-glass windows in the nave, or central space, of the light and airy church, which has no permanent pews to make room for collapsible dining tables and chairs at meal times. It costs about $2.6 million a year, or $10,000 a day, raised from charitable donations, to provide the food served by a pool of 80 volunteers and 28 full-time staff, said Mark Walter, a development assistant at the soup kitchen.
"We served more food in 2008 than in any other year, up nine per cent from 2007," he said. "Our best hope would be to run out of business and not have to do this. It's a privilege to do this work, but it's also a social tragedy." The soup kitchen is one of the largest of about 1,000 emergency food providers in New York. It serves as a microcosm of the fund-raising difficulties faced by charities just as demand is becoming acute.
US companies announced plans to lay off almost 242,000 workers last month, according to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas recruitment company. An estimated 1.5 million New Yorkers already live below the nationwide poverty line of about $25,000 a year in a city that has some of the highest living costs in the world, said Lesley Gordon, the head of agency relations at City Harvest, a food rescue and distribution group that donates supplies to the Holy Apostles.
"It's a perfect storm. We're focused on shoring up agencies just when there is a critical need for their services. Some of them have already had to turn people away and ration their food," she said. "The new face of hunger includes not just the homeless and other disadvantaged, but working people who are struggling to pay their basic bills." Non-profit institutions from hospitals to university endowments are reporting a fall in donations across the US as the housing slump and credit crisis force companies and individuals to cut back on charitable donations, which totalled about $300 billion in 2007.
New York is most affected by the Wall Street crisis. Lehman Brothers, the investment bank whose implosion in September heralded the current turmoil, gave $39 million to charity in 2007. "We can anticipate a ripple effect from the catastrophe on Wall Street and we're afraid," Mr Walter said. The Holy Apostles receives about 50 per cent of its funds from individual donations, many of them in amounts of less than $100, 30 per cent from foundations and the rest from the government and non-profit groups.
"Lower and middle income people are actually the most generous," Mr Walter said. It might be easier to raise funds if the soup kitchen collated information about their guests, but Mr Walter said they did not want to scare people away by prying into their personal lives. But inevitably staff and volunteers strike friendships with their guests, the overwhelming majority of whom are African-American or Latino men aged between 18 and 44.
"This is the least popular population to serve," Mr Walter said. "There're more resources out there for women and children than for single men." Ms Gordon said City Harvest had not taken too much of a hit in fund-raising so far because the public understood the need for its work. The group says it was the world's first to reclaim food that would otherwise be discarded. It collects from restaurants, farmers and companies. At the Holy Apostles, guests are allowed to take away bread, which is often "day-old" and donated through City Harvest.
Mr Dupre, the regular guest at the soup kitchen, said he followed closely as Barack Obama, the US president, pushed his $787bn economic stimulus plan through Congress. "They spent so much on war in Iraq and Afghanistan that they could be a lot more adventurous in helping us," he said. "They could give each of us taxpayers $1 million each and that would do a lot more to get the economy moving. But it's a pipe dream I know."