Walking down a dark street in the Bronx is not something most Manhattanites do without a good reason, but I had one. I was on my way to visit POTS—the acronym stands for Part of the Solution. In embryo form, POTS began some three decades ago to serve low-income residents in that section of New York. Its modest three-story building on Webster Avenue represents the “part of the solution” that helps people who are hungry and homeless. A soup kitchen provides hot meals daily to 400 guests—the word client is avoided—and a transitional shelter upstairs houses six men.
Making my way through the ground floor dining area, I sat down with Ned Murphy, a Jesuit who is the president of POTS and one of its co-founders. Our table, like others, was brightened by a tablecloth and flowers. Diners nearby were enjoying their evening meal, served by young waiters—volunteers from a local high school.
It did not seem like a soup kitchen at all. Over cups of juice, Father Murphy explained that POTS’s first location was a storefront a few blocks away. “But the landlord wanted us out,” he said, “so he raised our rent from $150 to $1,500 a month, which of course we couldn’t pay.”
Forced to move, the group found its present site near Fordham University and, with financial help from donors but trepidation at the thought of assuming the responsibilities of property ownership, POTS settled in at its present location, where it has remained for over 20 years. “The owners we got it from were three young guys who’d bought it on spec,” Father Murphy said. “But realizing that a hoped-for increase in real estate values wasn’t happening, and seeing what we were trying to do to help poor people, they let us have it at a reduced price.”
We climbed the stairs past the offices on the second floor to the kitchenette-equipped third, which provides comfortable accommodation for the six people who are using it as their temporary home. “As long as they’re working on getting their lives together,” Father Murphy noted, “they can stay as long as they like.” This can be a year or more.
But with the addition of a medical clinic and a legal clinic in the 1990’s, the original Webster Avenue building became badly crowded. “When the nurses and the legal workers arrived in the afternoon,” Father Murphy said, “the regular staff had to leave their desks.”
The need for additional space became so evident that, thanks to a parish in Rye, N.Y., another building around the corner was acquired. “The people who come to the medical clinic are afraid to go to the hospital, either because they have no insurance or because they are undocumented,” Father Murphy explained during our visit to the second POTS site. “But our volunteer nurses can usually get them in if hospitalization is needed.” The legal clinic, for its own part, helps with landlord-tenant disputes and the complexities of accessing entitlement programs like welfare and food stamps.
Have the numbers coming to POTS increased? They have, Father Murphy said, adding that the saddest part of this increase has been the rising number of families who come for the daily meals. “We began with just one sitting, from noon to 3,” he noted, “but last year so many families started coming that we added a second meal in the evening.”
As to the challenges that lie ahead, he explained that POTS’s goal is to reach all who need the increasingly varied kinds of help it provides. But its efforts, he emphasized, must be carried out in the context of building community. “We are called into community by our commitment to share with the poorest among us,” he said.
Like the families coming to the soup kitchen, unfortunately, the numbers of “the poorest” are rising nationwide. With the faltering economy and with an administration cutting taxes to benefit the rich even as war costs have escalated, the numbers of the poorest desperate for help will continue to rise.