Annual meal fills hunger, hearts of needy Atlantans

As thousands of hungry people with empty pockets streamed into Turner Field for a Thanksgiving meal, Elisabeth Omilami considered her organization’s own empty coffers.

For the 40th year, volunteers with Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry and Homeless — an Atlanta-based charity — served about 20,000 meals on Thanksgiving. But the organization had to take out a loan to help pay for the annual event after several natural disasters just about cleaned out its funds.

Food, clothing and housing assistance for 7,500 American in August cost the group about $147,000. There was almost nothing left for Thanksgiving, said Omilami, the group’s co-director. And its donors often said the same, she added.

“A lot of the corporations that were here last year didn’t come back,” she said. “We took out a loan from Wells Fargo for $100,000 for Thanksgiving.”

The charity is trying not to dip too heavily into the loan, but donations dropped off by about 20 percent for the group’s 40th year of Thanksgiving meals, she added.

Omilami and others attributed the decline to the constant drumbeat of need drawing aid to other charities.

“Many victims of natural disasters have come down here, but a lot of the people here haven’t gotten what they needed,” said Cynthia James, a homeless motivational speaker from Atlanta. “They have a storm in their lives as well.”

Some of the homeless seeking help Thursday say they’ve seen more people living on Atlanta’s streets, and less help. Meals like the Thanksgiving dinner from the Hosea Williams charity don’t make up for the losses elsewhere, one said.

“I respect what they’re doing, but they need to sweep around here before they start helping people out of state,” said Gregory Rogers, a homeless man living near Mechanicsville.

While money hasn’t been coming into the charity for its Thanksgiving services, board members and supporters say people continue to donate food, clothing, and services.

Alistair Edwards, a Publix supermarket manager in Douglasville, wheeled a cart laden with baked goods to a counter picked bare by noon. His store has been able to match its donations from last year, he said. But it’s been tough.

“We’ve been stretched from additional requests,” Edwards said.

It’s disaster fatigue, said Michael L. Thurmond, Georgia’s labor commissioner.

“People have given so much. And it’s not just financial. It’s emotional fatigue,” he said.

For the homeless people waiting in long lines for a Styrofoam container of Thanksgiving turkey, vegetables, and some pastries, the needs haven’t changed.

A hot shower. A hot meal. A haircut. A checkup. A change of clothes. A call to family. Perhaps a bus ticket back to them. And a kind word for people who hear few.

“It’s not about turkey and dressing. It’s about a smile,” said Andre Williams, a charity leader. “Feed the Hungry isn’t just about feeding homeless people. It’s about interacting with homeless people ? to understand that, except for the grace of God, there goes I.”

The charity tries to meet those needs each year. It also began working with the state Labor Department to include job placement services this year.

“A lot of people didn’t have to be here today,” said Kenneth Ganter, who recently became homeless shortly after a family breakup. “I’m seeing an abundance of help.”

With three more charity meals approaching — Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Easter Sunday — Omilami hopes her group also will see an abundance of help.

“Most of our money comes in during the last quarter of the year, and has to last through November,” she said. “We need a lot of help to get through Christmas and Martin Luther King’s birthday.”