What It Was Like at Philly’s Homeless Pop-Up Restaurant

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Last Saturday afternoon, the outside of the 23rd Street Armory revealed few signs of the party going on inside. Faint strains of songs by the Stylistics and the Ebonys escaped the large hall, and a few buses were parked outside. But inside, no one was getting married, celebrating a sweet 16 or a bar mitzvah. Members of the city’s homeless community were at Pop-Up Philly, an event organized in just 20 days by South Philly resident Jason Pinardo.

Pop-Up Philly was a one-day event — part restaurant, part community outreach, part dance party. It drew criticism from some Philadelphians who felt that the $23,615 raised on a GoFundMe page could have been used more practically to help the city’s homeless population. The event’s organizers say it wasn’t wasteful, but necessary. They say it gave people a sense of hope.

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Just inside the doors, greeters presented everyone — volunteers and guests — with a name tag. Everyone was addressed by name.

“I heard that some of the guests will go months without ever hearing their own name,” Pinardo said at City Hall earlier in the week. “So everyone — guests and volunteers — will be wearing name tags.” The name tag rule is central to this event: Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

At City Hall, Pinardo said it wasn’t his intention to serve as many people as possible. He wanted to provide those who “needed hope most” with an extraordinary experience. He said if one person walked away smiling, with a renewed sense of hope, the entire event would be worth it.

That’s why the dinner menu, catered by Cescaphe Event Group, had lobster bisque, Caprese salad, braised short rib over creamy polenta, and hand-filled cannoli. Sure, PB&Js would have been more economical, but that wasn’t the point.

“These people are homeless, and tonight isn’t going to change that,” said Mark, a Philadelphia man staying at one of the shelters while he looks for work. “But to see people’s happy faces under the circumstances? That’s special.”

“This event is awesome,” said another guest, Willie, who’s making the transition from seven years in prison to living free in Philadelphia. “Ain’t too many people trying to honor people who need it. This is a blessing.”

People came from across the city. Stephanie Sena, founder of Villanova’s Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), brought with her some of the people who live at her shelter. She also rode on buses throughout the day, inviting people off the street for a meal. People staying at St. John’s Hospice also came.

In addition to the meal, guests received $20 CVS gift cards. Then they could get one of 250 bags stuffed with toiletries and candy donated by Unforgotten Haven, a South Jersey nonprofit. From there, guests walked among tables of donated t-shirts, jackets, mittens, scarves and hoodies. After one hour, the racks of dresses and sweaters were nearly empty, and the 50 pairs of construction boots were claimed.

Photo | John Baer

During a “mocktail” hour, guests and volunteers walked along the periphery of the hall. Aladdin Nation, a South Jersey community outreach organization, was giving away pet food and supplies for homeless people with pets. Adam Bruckner, the much-profiled founder of Philly Restart, was there to explain to guests how to get a PennDOT ID card. His clients are people trying to get jobs, apply for housing, pick up medication, or check themselves into rehab.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Tom Costello Jr., founder of the Joy of Sox, an organization that distributes new socks to shelters and people living on the street. “If the goal was to help the homeless, to give them the recognition they deserve and seldom receive, I’m all for that. But I would have spent the money a little differently.”

He thought about it for a moment, and changed his mind.

“I’m going to go back on what I was saying before. Yes, I’d have approached it a little differently, but the reach went a lot further than the 150 people at the event. Yes. Much further.” He said he figures the volunteers, staff and donors are now more likely to volunteer and donate after working with the event.

In an interview after the event, Carrie Kitchen-Santiago, COO of Broad Street Ministry, presented a challenge to the people and organizations that donated time, money and services to the afternoon: “A one-time event is better than no event. More attention can’t hurt. But maybe some of the people who donated foods and services are interested in partnering with us or some of the other homelessness organizations in Philadelphia.”

“Even if it’s one time a year, and it’s drawing attention to the cause, it’s great,” added Kitchen-Santiago. “We need help year round.”

“I love when the community comes together,” said Villanova’s Sena. “This is the best of Philly, right here. I hope Jayson does this again next year.”

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