Editor’s note: This is the story of Julia Dorothy Natalia Zion of Pottstown. Julia is the organizer of the Wednesday Community Meal in Pottstown. We did a piece on this last week asking for donations and volunteers to help Julia out. Here is her story!
On Wednesday, June 27th, I hosted my third Pottstown Community Meal for about 40-50 people at the nice little park at Washington and Chestnut streets. While I had prepared and hosted two other meals, this one was special. See, I was homeless for about a year. From Pottstown, I moved from couch to couch, from one shelter to another, finally ending up back in Pottstown at the Ministries at Main Street shelter, which at the time was being housed at Christ Episcopal Church on South Charlotte St. There I met one of the most amazing groups of people I’ve ever met. That experience changed my life and led me to where I am today.
The night before I came back to Pottstown, I had just spent the night on the streets in the Walnut-Locust Subway concourse in South Philadelphia. Not a great place, but it was somewhat sheltered from the elements. I did not know where to go, but I was told by a friend from Occupy Norristown to call up CHOC, the county run homeless shelter on the Norristown State Hospital Grounds. I called them up, but they were full. They recommended that I go up to the shelter in Pottstown. I thought, “Eh…I lived a year in Pottstown. It wouldn’t kill me to go back up there. I’m familiar with the town.” So, I put together the $4.50 that I needed for SEPTA and made my way up. It was November and the nights were cold. I was told to go to 75 Main St, which I found out was across the river in North Coventry, at no earlier than 9 pm and no later than 10 for intake. I got there and from step one, I was treated with the utmost of respect and dignity, something I didn’t get within the Philadelphia city run shelter I was in for 3 months. I was a bit scared since I had never been in an “emergency shelter” style program before, but I grew used to it. It helped that the staff and volunteers that ran the shelter were a mix of former homeless and people who had been volunteering for a long time. I became very comfortable there. I let my guard down, sometimes a bit too much, but the way the shelter was run made it easy to do. I sometimes stayed up chatting with other guests or with staff. Sometimes, I would just lie down on my mat and surf the web on my phone, trying to forget where I was.
Unlike the experience of some, my experience was a positive one within the shelter. There were two problems, though. One was that the shelter ran from 10 pm to 8 am only, leaving a 14 hours with nothing to really do. I wasn’t really thinking about finding a job up here. I wasn’t sure if I was staying in town. I still thought I might move back to Philadelphia at some point. The second was that we had to take all of our belongings with us every day, minus the bedding that the shelter provided. So, I had a trusty folding shopping cart. I took it everywhere and I got looks. I wasn’t allowed to have it in the library or, eventually, at the community college. I was even politely told at a local diner to walk out the back door that they never used because I had my cart. I was treated worse than a second-class citizen. I was treated like a third class citizen. Second-class citizens at least are allowed service or allowed in a store. It was a totally different story when I would get a chance to park my cart somewhere for the day. I got none of the looks. I got none of the prejudice. I got treated like a regular person walking down a street. It was amazing how people still judged by the cover and not by the content. The prejudice against the homeless is still around and it’s ugly.
Now that I have a small apartment here in town, I can look back at all of those experiences and think about where I was and where I am today. Then, my thoughts come to those who are not as fortunate as I to have a roof over their heads. We are a society that doesn’t give many homeless and poor people a fair shake. As much as the religious community does stuff within the auspices of their churches, sometimes, congregants walk out that chapel door and don’t participate in what they are being taught. Sometimes, they take what they’ve learned about serving and helping the poor, use it in church, with a church sponsored dinner or food pantries, and then walk away saying they’ve done the work of the lord, doing their one good deed. Sure, serving food at a community dinner is a wonderful thing, but when you leave, do you do anything else? Do you instead go back into your homes and forget about all the people who were hungry and needed that meal until the next time you serve? This is the problem with people these days. I’m not trying to knock religion at all. I’m saying that serving the homeless and poor populations should not end at the church parking lot. It should continue onto the streets and in the parks. It should continue at the encampments in the woods and in the back alleys where people sleep. People, no matter how much money they have, no matter how they look or if they push a cart everywhere deserve the same amount of respect regardless of life standing. This does not happen in Pottstown. Cheryl Atkinson was allowed to lay dead in a very visible park at a very visible fountain for 8-12 hours before someone saying, “Ya know? Maybe we should do something.” What does that say about this town and it’s residents?
The community meal on Wednesday nights was first run by Pastor Kork Moyer, the same pastor who runs the Ministries at Main Street shelter during the winter. He has seen his numbers for his actual church dwindle to the point where he and his wife could no longer get the support and wouldn’t have the time to do it themselves. So, he gave up on the dinner. I saw an opportunity and picked up the responsibility for myself.
I wanted to keep this meal going because I want to give back to the community that gave me so much. This place is an amazing ray of sunshine at the farthest reaches of Montgomery County. I have met some of the best people, been a part of some great activities and frequent the vibrant High Street markets on a regular basis. I love this town and wanted to give back in the only way I know how, which is to cook. (I am a culinary student, by the way.)
I also saw a need. All the community meals run by the Cluster are in church basements. That can get quite boring from time to time. Why not jazz it up a bit and hold one every week at a park with a pavilion, amphitheater seating, a playground, even electrical outlets.
Finally, I am trying to do this as a kind of protest over these idiotic and discriminatory laws trying to clear the streets of homeless people. In Philadelphia, I would be arrested for holding these meals outside. There is now a ban on groups serving the homeless outside in Philadelphia and similar laws have sprouted up in places such as Orlando, Florida. All these laws do is force the homeless elsewhere so the rich and business owners can forget they exist and do nothing to fix the problems that led to the homeless being there in the first place. It’s like the homeless population is being treated like vermin and it is wrong. This is why I decided to get the Occupy movement involved. I was looking for a way to join up again and helping the community serve the homeless and poor and treat them with respect and dignity is something that Occupy is totally about.
That being said, the Occupy Pottstown movement came through like gang busters this week. The first two weeks of the meal had drained my food stamps and finances. So, without the wonderful people from Occupy, there would not have been a meal this week. I got in contact with a few people through a friend in Occupy Norristown and the whole thing exploded into a dinner that serves 40-50 people with about 12 of them being help. We had burgers and hot dogs. We had potato salad and pasta salad. We had desserts. We had a donation of hummus and pitas from iCreate Café on High Street. We had someone playing banjo. We even got a $25 gift card donated to us by Giant Supermarket to help with some of the costs. This was just amazing and it was a real community effort. In all of 3 days, we put together a meal that served the community and got loads of smiles and gratitude. People are excited about the meals to come.
I think Occupy Pottstown has the right attitudes to keep this type of effort going for years to come. I think I have the energy and skills to keep this going and growing and thriving. We have a nice core group of people up here who are energetic, full of ideas and up for a challenge. We put together a meal that served 45-50 people within 3 days! That is just amazing and they deserve most of the credit. We had donations coming at us from friends of friends. We had ideas coming from anywhere. Heck, we’ve also had an offer for someone to come play a didgeridoo at the next meal. The community came out strong to eat and to help.
To come from losing my home in April of 2011 to running my own community meal in June of 2012, I have grown quite a bit. I used to be a very selfish person until my best friend almost broke ties with me. It jolted me into reality and from then on, I have done things I never thought I could. I have become a part of organizations that I never knew existed for which I never had the need before becoming homeless. I want to make a difference in this town. The homeless are treated horribly here by the general public. Why else do you think someone like Cheryl Atkinson could be left by the side of a very visible fountain in a very visible park on a very hot day for 8-12 hours before being noticed? Why else was I getting all those stares when I pushed my cart around town? It’s sad and that needs to be changed. I hope the Wednesday Night Community Meals can change opinions…one plate at a time.