Elmer Smith: He finally saw the homeless & made sure they were fed

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Craig Stroman (right) and other volunteers set out food on Vine Street outside Family Court as part of the efforts of his We Feed the Homeless Philly nonprofit.

This is another in our "make it happen" series of columns about people who see a need and find a way to meet it. If you know about people who manage to get something done in their communities, tell us about them so we can share their stories with our readers.


 

CRAIG Stroman had perfected that straight-ahead stare that allows us to see but not see the homeless.

It's an urban coping mechanism that keeps the images of those dusty men and vacant-eyed women from being seared into our subconscious for the rest of the day.

He could look past a guy in four layers of coats pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans, or one of those aggressive panhandlers who try to waylay you.

But that's not what he saw one day last April.

"I was going to work one day after a big snowstorm," said Stroman, a civil-rights investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I saw a family come out of a green tent right next to the Vine Street Expressway off-ramp. It was a mother and father and a little girl.

"I thought to myself, 'How am I going to be able to ignore this one?' "

He couldn't shake it. The scene kept replaying on an endless loop in his mind. The face of the little girl got interspersed with images of his youngest daughter.

"I used to be one of those who walked around, walked through and even walked over some homeless people in my life," he admitted. "But I couldn't get past the feeling that I ought to be doing something.

A day later, he posted an appeal on his Facebook page for anyone who would help him feed the homeless. His sister and four friends responded immediately with sandwiches, bottles of water and bags of chips.

"We had about 60 sandwiches. We thought we could feed everybody," he recalled. "But about 100 homeless people showed up."

He smiles and shakes his head slowly at the memory. He can afford to laugh about it now.

Because in the year since that sputtering start, Stroman and his hapless startup crew have enlisted a large corps of volunteers who have served thousands of meals to hundreds of homeless people in Philadelphia.

"It went viral," Stroman said. "Next time we went out, we were met by 30 volunteers. They had hundreds of bags of food and cases of water and fruit.

"It rained hard that day, but the women didn't care about their hairdos. We loaded up bags and fed [the homeless] in the subway concourse.

"People were stopping and helping us when they saw what we were doing. I was struck by the spirit of volunteerism. I knew we had started a movement."

They have formed a nonprofit called We Feed the Homeless Philly, staffed entirely by volunteers. Every dime that comes in through their fundraisers and appeals goes out as meals.

"We got a lot of help from Brian and Shandai Jenkins, of Chosen 300," Stroman said. "They feed on a huge scale, all over the world. They walked us through the process to get set up and to become an effective organization.

"We got $5,000 from Philadelphia Phillies charities. [Team president] Dave Montgomery and his wife were wonderful, and the other people from their owners group.

"We raised a few thousand dollars in a fundraiser on Feb. 26 with a dinner party and a music and comedy show for the general public.

"We've started feeding every two weeks instead of every three weeks. This new money is going to let us feed every week, starting two weeks from now.

"We've moved to in front of the Family Court building. That's where a lot of homeless people live. We decided to go to them instead of them coming to us."

They expect to feed 300-400 a week and perhaps to expand to other cities.

"It's just our one-year anniversary," Stroman said. "Our aspirations are global."

That's a pretty expansive vision for a guy who could only stare straight ahead last year.

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith