Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.
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A five-mile walk leads him from his makeshift campsite, across town, and into Ithaca’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. It’s a trip he’s been repeating for over ten years.
Today is no different from the rest; black sunglasses hide his eyes while a winter hat pulled low over his forehead covers his long brown hair. His face is scabbed, not from drug use, but from malnutrition. At 6 foot 2, he weighs only 135 pounds. The promise of a free meal from Loaves and Fishes quite literally keeps him alive.
“Without them, I don’t know if I would have been able to face the challenges I’ve personally had,” a longtime Loaves and Fishes patron said. “I would not have been able to walk the path that I have.”
Since 1983, Loaves and Fishes has operated out of St. John’s Episcopal Church, offering a full soup kitchen to Ithaca’s less fortunate, every Monday through Friday.
It’s something that’s becoming more and more important. According to the Humane Service Coalition of Tompkins County, homelessness in Ithaca is increasing.
A study by the Coalition found that in 2014, 12,801 bed nights (a bed night refers to one individual shelter for one night) were logged in Tompkins County, the highest amount 2007.
Loaves and Fishes, which is run by a local Christian ministry, is designed to help those in need receive a free meal and gain help getting back on their feet.
“Our main goal is to create a community, provide hospitality and companionship,” executive director, Christina Culver, said.
Homelessness is also on the rise in Cortland, and has increased for the past five years, Loaves and Fishes of Cortland director, Kim Hill, said.
“We serve seventy plus a day,” Hill said. “Monday, Tuesday, Friday we’re lunch, and Tuesday and Thursday’s we’re dinner.”
Ithaca’s Loaves and Fishes, independent from the Cortland branch, has also seen an increase in patrons.
“Right now we’re serving about 13 percent more meals a day [since 2010],” Culver said. “I think we’re serving over 3000 meals each month, and it kind of varies on a given day, between probably 140 and 175 meals.”
And while it’s this kind of need that keeps people coming back, Loaves and Fishes strives to be more than just a soup kitchen.
“This place is definitely to celebrate everyone’s traditions, religious traditions, religions, holidays,” kitchen manager Jennifer Reeves said. “Everyone that I work with, everybody’s hearts are into helping people.”
The organization receives food donations from both grocery stores and local farms, and monetary donations ranging from the Roy H. Park foundation, to individual donors.
“We look at a deficit budget typically of 20,000 to 30,000 dollars so there a push every year to bridge that gap,” Culver said.
She noted that as a community run organization with only one fulltime employee, maintaining what one patron called “a five star service” was difficult, but necessary.
“We recognize that people have their ups and downs,” Culver said. “Many people have come to me and said Loaves and Fishes was so helpful when I lost my job.”
Loaves and Fishes is always accepting new volunteers, and those interested in learning more or donating their time can find out more information here.