Turning onto Mathewson Street, we could see the men and women up ahead, dark figures milling around near the entrance to the soup kitchen. As we drew closer the silhouettes became real people, many of whom we know by now. It was another Sunday at The Breakfast. Many of these folks waiting to eat want no more than than a full belly and maybe someone to talk with for a few minutes. Dreams of a place to live or a good job have faded long ago. We’ve come to realize that there are a many homeless people in Providence. And still more that may not be homeless but are very poor and just barely making it.
We have been coming here for almost three years now, volunteers at this soup kitchen called “The Sunday Friendship Breakfast,” It’s held at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, just down from the Providence Performing Arts Center. 200 or more meals will be prepared this morning. Kathy and an army of volunteers serve the steaming plates of eggs and sausage. I take pictures. More importantly, we both try to listen to our guests with open ears and open hearts.
I've found my camera provides a way to make a connection, maybe begin a conversation with someone who wants to talk. I’ve become the “picture man” around here. They know me now. I’m often approached to make a. portrait. I always comply. Sometimes I sense someone who seems interested but afraid to ask if I will do their portrait so I make a pitch to them. “Would you like a picture, too?” I ask. I tell them I will bring a them a print the following Sunday, “One you can give your Mom or stick on your refrigerator.” (Even if you don’t have either one of these.) . Some people do say no to my portrait request but most are willing, and many truly enjoy a few minutes of attention, an affirmation of their humanity. . It makes them feel noticed, recognized, worth something.
Left to right, Melissa, Uncle Vinnie, Joe, and Terry.
This was the way I got to know Vincent (Uncle Vinnie to his friends) and Melissa, and heard about their bad luck. Last spring, after waiting a long time to get into a place, their subsidized apartment building burned down. It was in the papers, four families suddenly homeless because of this fire. Bad luck. Vincent and Melissa were out on the street again. Sleeping in doorways wasn't anything new to this couple, they had been out in the cold before. But this time Vinnie was determined to at least find shelter for Melissa. He proudly proclaimed in his loud voice (he’s hard of hearing) that although he was sleeping outside, he had found a place for Melissa to live with some of his friends. "At least she has a roof over her head," he told me.
I suppose Melissa eventually wore out her welcome. Safety nets are hard to come by our here, especially if you have other issues. Things get complicated real quick. So now they both are once again homeless. Unfortunately, it’s a common problem. Finding a decent apartment isn’t easy in Providence, and keeping it just as hard or maybe harder.
As I said, my camera often helps break the ice, as it did this day. The woman in the group photo wearing the "Newport" sweat shirt was a new person here at the breakfast. After I took the group picture, I mentioned I had never seen her before. She told me her name was Terry. Although she's smiling here (a reflex no matter how lousy one really feels), she said in a whisper that it was a very hard time now. She is living from day to day, carrying all of her things in two bags.I could feel her anxiety, see the exhaustion in her face, and hear the desperation in her voice.
Terry, a new guest at The Breakfast.