It’s chaos as usual in the dull, day-lit gym of the Clinton Avenue Methodist Church. A sweet-faced, shy Latino woman with thick hair sheepishly asks the Rev. Darlene Kelley if she has any baby diapers. Kelley turns to her left, and another woman is tugging on her sleeve to show her something. Four different urgent voices are calling “Pastor Kelley!” from four different directions, each with different needs.
Beat-up half-broken card and banquet tables looking like they were found on the side of the road are lined up along the wall, hosting recycled aluminum containers filled with steaming food, utensils, bags of days-old bread and boxes of undersized apples and older fruits. People of all different ages with faces of all different colors mill around the cafeteria tables and lines of food; some merrily chattering while others slump in silence.
The Caring Hands soup kitchen and food pantry is open five days a week to serve lunch at 11:30, though Kelley says on rainy or cold days people arrive earlier for shelter so she lets them in. The diners are Kingston’s downtrodden, forgotten, disenfranchised. They are mentally ill, physically disabled, recent immigrants, chemically addicted and even frequently incarcerated, and often in immediate need of more than just a meal. In all, the kitchen serves 1,200 meals per month — more since Irene flooded Kingston, Kelley pointed out.
Since it’s more realistic to go to where the people are, special services run with the soup kitchen. Ulster County BOCES runs a GED program between Tuesday and Thursday every week, right after lunch. Attorney Steve Gottlieb of Kingston has been providing free legal services and workshops after lunch on Fridays through the church’s lunch program for over 10 years. Gottlieb started out in the south Bronx Eviction Prevention program unit 20 years ago, and is often referred by Family of Woodstock for his services, for which he is paid through various governmental agencies.
“There’s a real need,” said Gottlieb. “There’s nothing stopping people from being evicted. I have to intervene. Sometimes it’s as little as a phone call by explaining why the rent is going to be late, or a letter to a service agency to figure out what went wrong … I help prevent evictions, help families stay together and help individuals who are needy seek to support services.”
While Gottlieb waited for his workshop to begin, three lunch program diners kept interrupting his conversations to present their problems and request help — either by begging, politely asking, or plain demanding. Narcotics Anonymous meetings are also held Fridays and Sundays at 7 p.m.
Another not-for-profit agency, The People Inc., frequents the soup kitchen looking to help match needy people to human services. Sean O’Connor approaches people in need to offer his agency’s services of one-on-one counseling, support advocacy, emergency housing placement and more. “We try to get them to where they’re safe and supported,” explained O’Connor, who said support can range from community integration to family childcare. O’Connor said his agency often helps place Kingston’s people in need at Washington Manor, Darmstadt Shelter, Elizabeth Manor, Hummel House or Chiz’s Heart Street.