LIKE SO MANY Philadelphians, Craig Stroman used to walk past homeless people without opening his wallet or his heart to them. That all changed in February 2010, when a young girl emerging from a tent pitched near a Vine Street Expressway off-ramp - in a snowstorm - moved him to act.
"I did a lot of praying after I saw that girl," he says. "I was feeling a lot of guilt about the way I acted before. Then, one day it just came to me that I could take food out to feed people."
With his best friend, his sister, and two of his sister's friends, Stroman went to LOVE Park with sandwiches one day that April, and We Feed the Homeless Philly was born.
Today, dozens of volunteers - including students from local universities - gather at 10 a.m. Saturdays on the Parkway to distribute meals. The organization also sponsors a turkey giveaway for hundreds of families at Thanksgiving.
Next Sunday, We Feed the Homeless Philly hosts its annual Black Tie Gala fund-raiser at the Crystal Tea Room in the Wanamaker Building. Reporter Valerie Russ spoke to Stroman.
Tell me more about seeing that little girl in the 2010 snowstorm. How did that change you?
I was driving to work and had taken the Vine Street Expressway off-ramp, when I saw this family coming out of a green tent on the embankment near 15th Street.
There was a mother, father, and a little girl who looked like she was about 10 years old, about the same age as my younger daughter. I never really paid attention to homelessness at that point. But that image of that little girl stayed on my heart.
What was your attitude toward the homeless before then?
I used to work as a civil-rights investigator for HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] in the Wanamaker Building, across from City Hall. I saw people asking for money all the time.
I was one of those people who used to just walk by a homeless person and tell them I didn't have any money, when I knew I had money in my pocket.
What was it like when you first went to serve food?
That first time, in April 2010, we went to LOVE Park. But we only had enough bags of sandwiches for about 60 people, and after we had given away all the food, about 100 people were still waiting in line.
I felt terrible. I told myself that I would never go out again without having enough food.
Why did you move your outreach to 18th and Vine Streets?
The police told us we could get arrested for feeding people in LOVE Park. So we went to 18th and Vine because a lot of the homeless were living there. We went on Facebook and asked people to help us, and they came out in droves.
How did you feel about the Nutter administration's ban on feeding the homeless near the Parkway? A number of religious organizations filed a federal lawsuit against it.
We're glad that Mayor Kenney has lifted the ban.
What is your family background?
I grew up in the East Falls housing projects. While we weren't hungry, my mother struggled to feed three boys and a girl after my father left. She worked two jobs sometimes, and we got government food.
We didn't know we were poor because my mother always found a way to feed us.
How did you get out of the projects?
After high school - I graduated from Roxborough High - I went into the Army. From there I went to work for HUD as a civil rights investigator for fair-housing claims. Recently, I've switched to doing similar work for the USDA [the Department of Agriculture], which also has rural housing programs.
What have you learned about hunger in Philadelphia?
A lot of hungry people are working and have homes.
The homeless numbers are declining because people are finding housing. But they still come out when we serve food because they can't afford to both buy food and pay for housing.
You're having a black-tie gala as a fund-raiser for the homeless at the Crystal Tea Room. Have you taken heat for that?
We can't continue to feed people if we don't have money. Why not raise money and have a good time, too?
We Feed the Homeless Philly Black Tie Gala, 5-10 p.m. next Sunday with food from chef Gerald Drummond and music by Kelly Price, Vertical Current, and DJ Jazzy Joe, $100-$125, 215-764-5688, wefeedthehomelessphilly.org.