Giving Thanks

Homeless Eat Well, For a Day

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  11/28/2003

After four big meals by noon, Rolfe Vincent stood up from the table, patted his paunch, and then, with a mix of awe and pride, gazed at his fully cleared plate and said, "I think I met my quota."

It had been a while since the 52-year-old former chef could pack down so much grub.

But on Thanksgiving, he noted, everyone seems to want to feed the homeless - and like hundreds of others dining with him late yesterday morning at the St. Francis House, he willingly obliged.

"A lot of people here don't have a lot to be thankful for," said Vincent, who has spent the past few months sleeping on a bench in South Station. "Most of the year, you feel empty, abandoned, alone, and frankly, worthless. These meals, at least for the day, are comforting."

Every year on Thanksgiving, antihunger groups and shelters provide the city's poorest residents everything from free turkeys to three-course meals. The goal is to help the homeless. But for those who spend the rest of the year scrimping, many surviving on one or two meals a day, it's become something of a nonstop feast.

In addition to meals served at shelters, healthy portions of gravy-laden turkey and pumpkin pie were offered yesterday at churches and organizations including The Salvation Army in Chelsea, Roxbury's Grace and Hope Mission, and Beacon Hill's Neighborhood Action, Inc.

"People want to give something back this time of year," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who helped serve meals and greet the homeless in at least five shelters and churches yesterday. "That's a good thing. I don't see anything wrong with it."

As appreciative as they were of all the meals and attention - with the visiting politicians, the abundance of enthusiastic volunteers, and the bright lights of TV cameras - some yesterday wondered why it was only once or twice a year they received such services.

Homeless for decades, and a longtime visitor to downtown's St. Francis House, Cleve Ware watched as volunteers adorned the kitchen with accoutrements he couldn't remember seeing before. At least, he said, not since last Thanksgiving.

A white tablecloth covered each table. Candles and flower-filled vases were set on top. Napkin-covered baskets kept bread warm. And when the meal of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and much more arrived, it came on fancy plates, with colorful mats below.

Before setting into his third meal of the morning, the 49-year-old native of Alabama said, "This is wonderful, but it shouldn't be just on the holidays. It should be good as this all the time."

Not everyone dining at the shelter was homeless.

Melvin Francisco spent 15 years without a home, but now that he has his own apartment, he said, he gets lonely after watching television by himself. When that happens, he moseys down to St. Francis and stands in line for a meal, or in yesterday's case, waits to be served.

"Not only is it edible," he said while dousing his turkey with gravy, "but they let you take seconds."

Others feasting at St. Francis yesterday were just happy they could be there. Like many of the city's 6,200 homeless residents, Scott Morrison arrived on the streets from jail, a refuge he sometimes misses now.

Barely awake after spending the night outside, the 32-year-old former Air Force cook said he couldn't pass up the free food.

His morning started around 6 a.m. with scrambled eggs, a slab of ham, a doughnut, and coffee at the Pine Street Inn. Shortly after, he made the 20-minute walk to St. Francis, and gobbled up soggy French toast, a sausage patty, and two cups of strawberry milk.

"It was good," said Morrison, after sleeping in a holding room near the shelter's kitchen. "I try not to overfill myself - but it's Thanksgiving."

For his part, Vincent was already talking about dinner.

"I'm getting fat," he observed with a light Irish brogue and a smile.

Within a few hours he digested two big breakfasts and two hefty lunches. Life on the streets, he said, takes a toll, and these meals may be the only perks. He hoped to find a steak and cheese sandwich for dinner.

"People look down on you because you're homeless, and it hurts," he said. "But it's nice to come here and see at least some people care."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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