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Mobile soup kitchen serves New Yorkers through evolving crisis

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Isaac Simon manages money for the wealthy during the day and caters to the needs of the poor at night.

On most Tuesdays for 15 or so years, Simon has been driving a white van loaded with food — enough to feed 300 people — and delivering meals to needy New Yorkers around Manhattan.

Isaac Simon, a 15-year volunteer with Coalition for the Homeless.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

Along his Manhattan route, most of his clientele are regulars he’s been helping to feed for months, if not years. But as of late, some new faces have been showing up to the mobile soup kitchen.

“I’ve been seeing a lot more of the migrant families in the last few weeks here — the last month or two,” Simon, 50, said during a ride-along last month with Gothamist.

Ruben Santana (left) and Ndiogou Dione package food that will later be delivered by volunteers to hungry and unhoused people throughout Manhattan.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

Since he joined the Coalition for the Homeless’ mobile soup kitchen program, Simon has seen the demand for services take on new forms as different crises emerge: the COVID-19 pandemic that effectively shut down New York City and left thousands jobless, followed by the growing wave of asylum-seekers from South and Central America living in the city’s homeless shelters since this fall, and, more recently, rising inflation that has driven up the costs of goods.

Much has changed in the last few years, but the needs haven’t.

“It’s really the same in the sense that people are hungry. They need food, they need clothes, and they want jobs, and they want housing,” Simon said.

The mobile soup kitchen came about in 1985, the day after a homeless woman died of starvation in Grand Central Terminal, according to the Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that serves homeless individuals living on the streets as well as those living in the city’s shelters. Each night, three vans deliver 800 to 1,200 meals to men, women and children throughout Manhattan and in parts of the Bronx.

The soups, bagels, milk and oranges Simon distributes along his nine-stop route, which takes him through some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, bolster the daily meals of many of the people he helps — even those who aren’t homeless.

Boxes of Sun Pacific oranges.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

Jessica Gottesman, and her son, Josh Gottesman, 16, run out of the delivery van as folks wait to get hot food and donated clothing on one of the coalition’s several stops across Manhattan.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

“A lot of people still have homes, but they don’t have enough money for three meals a day, so they’re using this to subsidize the shortage,” Simon said.

Among them is Ervin Wilkinson, who was waiting for the Coalition’s mobile soup van on the corner of 137th Street and Lenox Avenue, the northernmost stop on Simon’s route.

“If I had food in the house, I wouldn’t come out in this cold,” said Wilkinson, who lives five blocks north. “Right now, I don’t have any food. So, I got to come here and get a hot meal every night.”

Ervin Wilkinson relies on hot food and donations from Coalition for the Homeless when he doesn’t have enough food at home.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

As of September, visits to city food pantries and soup kitchens are up 14% from January 2022, according to City Harvest, a food rescue organization. Visits have also continued to stay far above their pre-pandemic figures.

As Simon pulled into his first stop on the corner of 51st Street and Broadway, David Jeremiah was among the group waiting for him.

Jeremiah lost his job as an ambulance driver during the pandemic, and lost his apartment soon thereafter. If it wasn’t for the mobile soup kitchen, he’d go hungry at night.

“I’ll starve for the night,” Jeremiah said. “I mean, there’s no other way we can get food. This is the only place that I know of. They treat you well here. They give you extra food. Without this here, a lot of people will starve.”

Jeremiah got extra helpings of beef stew that Tuesday night, along with three pints of milk.

Outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, Simon greeted Mohammed Saud by name.

“He always takes care of me,” said Saud, 63. “I’ve known him for many, many years.”

Mohammed Saud receives his Tuesday-night meal.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

Tuesday night is Saud’s favorite night of the week because the Coalition serves beef stew, he said.

Juan De La Cruz, the Coalition’s director of emergency relief services, said that when he began working with the nonprofit in 2006, the mobile soup kitchen only served about 80 meals at St. Bartholomew’s Church each night. It now serves an average of about 280 meals at this one location, and on some nights it serves as many as 400.

“The number of meals has increased throughout the years,” said De La Cruz.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

In addition to handing out food, Simon also collects clothes, blankets, towels, knapsacks and other items to give to the people he meets along his stops.

“He makes house calls to pick up donations from anyone who contacts him,” said Jessica Gottesman, who occasionally volunteers with her 16-year-old son.

“There is a program of course, but it’s you,” Gottesman told Simon. “You literally know people by their first names. You know where they’re coming from. You know who needs shoes. You know who likes this kind of shirt or jacket and who doesn’t.”

“It’s the volunteers that make it,” Simon responded.

Jessica Gottesman (center) and Isaac Simon (right) hand out hot food as they volunteer delivering hot food and donated clothing.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Gothamist

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