On Christmas of 2014, Fishtown resident Margaux Murphy took notice of the many homeless Philadelphians there were in her neighborhood, and thought about how they might not have anything to eat. Spontaneously, she drove to Boston Market and bought 12 meals that she distributed to a dozen people. That one act of generosity has mushroomed into a coalition of volunteers who come together to share food with the homeless every Sunday. The Sunday Love Project, as it is known, has now become committed to not only serving homemade food to the homeless, but to building a community based on generosity and doing the right thing.
“These are human beings,” Murphy says. “They are not trash we can just dispose of. These are people that have a hard time and any of us can be in this situation.”
It’s difficult to calculate the exact number of people living on the street, but according to Project HOME, in 2015 “homeless outreach organizations in the city engaged over 6,500 individuals living on the street, in cars, abandoned buildings, trains and bus stations and other places not meant for human habitation.” According to the report, a further 15,000 people (including families) accessed shelters in Philadelphia and many more were turned away because of lack of capacity.
Murphy says the experience has taught her to change the way she thinks about homelessness. She now recognizes the role that social forces— mental and physical disability, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of affordable housing and extreme poverty—play in leading people to lose their homes. “There is more mental illness than I realized” she says. Among the homeless Murphy has met, she has found a lot of veterans who suffer from PTSD and who are unable to get treatment, or people who were living paycheck to paycheck who missed a rent payment. She has also encountered many people whose stories don’t fit into the homeless stereotype: “We had one person in line the other day who had a master’s degree.”
During Murphy’s Christmas food giveaway, she noticed how many more homeless people needed warm meals. She took to Facebook and asked friends if they could donate money so that she could distribute food again the following week. Initially about seven or eight people contributed about $100 so that Murphy could go out and start serving the homeless in a more coordinated way. “I just kept doing that and then a month into it I thought that this could be a thing,” she says. Murphy began distributing food every Sunday with her then boyfriend. Slowly, she started collecting more volunteers who were interested in doing it with her.
The work that goes into serving that many people begins early in the week. Murphy puts up a menu on Facebook asking for volunteers to cook the meals. Volunteers sign up and then drop off the meals at one of three locations around Philadelphia by a specific time on Saturday. The meals are then been picked up, and dropped off at Murphy’s house in Fishtown. On Sunday, Murphy reheats the meals, boxes them up and transports them to Center City, where about 20 volunteers help her hand the food out to the homeless. “No money is exchanged,” she says. “We say that we can reimburse people if they want, but no one takes money.”
She chose the park near the main branch of the Free Library on the Parkway as a place where she could get a significant amount of people to come. On the first day that she was there, she served around 40 people. When people saw that Murphy was going to be there at the same time every week the crowd grew. When the library began renovations, she had to move to Love Park; now she’s across the street at 15th and JFK.
Currently she serves more than 200 people every Sunday. “We start promptly at 2 o’clock by 2:10 we will have already shared about 140 servings.” she says. “We are a well-oiled machine.”
The Sunday Love Project is entirely volunteer run. The money that is collected goes to buying food and occasional treats. “Last week we bought Powerade, which is a huge treat because we usually stick to water.” At this point, Murphy says that she is more interested in having people come and volunteer and contribute their labor to the project than raising money. In December the organization received a grant from Wawa and a $10,000 donation from Peapod, the online grocery company.
In the last couple months, Murphy has garnered attention for her work—including a spot on Rachael Ray in December. “People are constantly telling me that this is so amazing, you are such a good person,” she says. “But I feel like we have gotten so far away from doing the right thing that when you do the right thing people want to give you accolades.”
Murphy is hopeful that people are beginning to see that it is not that hard to help someone. This is why having the community involved in the sharing of the food is so important to her. After her appearance on Rachael Ray, Murphy was inundated with emails from people around the country saying that they were inspired by her story. Many of the emails asked her advice about how to start a similar project in their cities around the country. Her advice to them was simple: “Just do it. Just start.”
“People think that it is such a big undertaking. But it doesn’t have to be” she continues. “Even if you go out and feed 10 people that’s great! That’s more than you are doing now. This didn’t start with me going, let me feed 200 people. I didn’t even think about it I just did it.”
As The Sunday Love Project continues to flourish, Murphy is looking to the future. Her next goal is to set up a community kitchen. “I spend hours on Sunday heating stuff up preparing and all the stuff. Just heating all that stuff up takes hours. So if you are in one kitchen you wouldn’t have to do extra work.” She also wants the community kitchen to be a place where the homeless can come and help with the cooking. “There are many guys looking for a job, so getting them in the kitchen and having them start cooking would give them the job skills.”