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The Danny Meyer of Homelessness

Rev. Bill Golderer is trying to turn lives around by applying the famed restaurateur’s principles of five-star hospitality. Can homelessness be defeated, Shake Shack style?

The speakers at this week’s Welcome Conference in New York City, where a star-studded foodie lineup gathered Monday to share ideas about the meaning and practice of hospitality, included Steve Ells, founder and CEO of Chipotle and Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of New Yorkrestaurants Eleven Madison Park and NoMad. The closer was, of course, Danny Meyer, the guru of hospitality. Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, owns restaurants ranging from Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café to Shake Shack. He’s the author of the bestseller Setting The Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality In Business which made hospitality into something of a movement.

But there was one Welcome Conference speaker who was not like the others. Rev. Bill Golderer is not a foodie, though he is soon to be in the restaurant business with James Beard Award-winning Philly chef Michael Solomonov and his partner Steve Cook; their Rooster Soup will turn the unused chicken parts of their Federal Donuts restaurants into stock for soup. They’re hoping to open in January; when they do, all proceeds will go to Golderer’s Broad Street Ministry, across from the Kimmel Center. “What if you could help someone who really needed it, just by eating lunch?” is their battle cry.

Bill Golderer of Broad Street Ministry
Bill Golderer of Broad Street Ministry

Golderer’s church feeds the homeless every day—but we’re not talking about soup kitchen lines doling out slop. There are no lines at Broad Street Ministry, because, according to Golderer, “lines traumatize these people, because they know from experience that there will be nothing at the end of that line for them.” So there’s a host or hostess behind a stand, as at any top-notch restaurant, and a waiting lounge if your table isn’t ready. There are volunteer waiters and linen tablecloths and place settings. Steven Seibel, a five-star chef Golderer poached from Comcast corporate dining, prepares the food. He’s challenged his tony neighbors, places like the Four Seasons, The Union League and the Ritz-Carlton, to buy into his “theory of change,” and they have, along with others in Philly’s hospitality community; they sit on his hospitality advisory board, contributing resources—both financial and human. They help him bring quality service to a population not used to being catered to. The dinner at one recent meal, for example, was an African peanut chicken stew. Diners are “guests” and their case workers are “concierges.”

This isn’t just about semantics. Edd Conboy is BSM’s Director of Social Services; he’s a psychologist and a former Silicon Valley startup consultant who has developed Broad Street’s trauma-informed harm reduction model. “In our early
days, we were well-intentioned and ill-informed,” he says. “We’d have overflowing bowls of fruit and it freaked people out. We didn’t understand that, if you’re living in scarcity and you experience abundance, you make a very rational judgment—there wasn’t enough yesterday, there’s more than enough today, so there won’t be anything tomorrow. So I  better get it all now. We were actually retraumatizing our guests. Now, there’s always enough, but just enough. There are no second helpings.”

 

The result is that Broad Street Ministry has become an oasis. “I can walk into The Sofitel and no one says to me, ‘You don’t belong here,’” Golderer says. “Our guests are told every day, in both subtle and unsubtle ways, that they’re not wanted. When you live in scarcity, everything out there is anxiety-producing. We’re a stress-free place of belonging.”

On Monday, the 45-year-old Golderer explained his notion of “radical hospitality” to the sold-out crowd at the Welcome Conference, prompting Elyssa Goldberg of bonappetit.com to post that his talk proved that “invitations can change your life…He’s learned to invite everyone always, deny the impulse to be judgmental, and to not be ‘welcoming with an asterisk.’ (We may or may not have been tearing up.)” To watch the video, click here and start at the 1:00:54 mark of the morning session.

At BSM, the more than 50,000 meals per year are just the start. Concierges also help guests access a menu of services. They can help themselves to items in the “clothing closet,” receive housing assistance, legal help, physical and psychological therapy. Golderer is inclined toward unlikely models, from the philosophies of Meyer to lessons learned observing an icon of Middle America commerce. “Whatever you think of Wal-Mart, it started as a place to get onesies, and now you can get everything there,” he says. “It’s all under one roof. That’s what we’re doing for people who are disinclined to walk through 10 different agency doors all over the city, where they’ll be hassled and made to feel like shit.” As an experiment, Golderer, who attended Southern Methodist University on a golf scholarship a quarter century ago, has actually made the walk. “It’s the equivalent of walking two rounds of golf,” he says.

Perhaps the coolest of Broad Street’s experiments is its post office. Nearly 3,000 Philadelphians use BSM as their address. “Try going on a job interview and answering the question, ‘How can I reach you?’ with a ‘You can’t,’” Golderer says. “You’re done. If you don’t have an address, you’re not seen as a person.” The mailroom also serves as a way to gently intervene in the lives of BSM’s guests. Trained as case workers, the postal staff will say to a guest, “I notice you got a summons—what are you doing about that? Do you need help?”

Golderer is a big man with a big personality; he peppers his speech with more expletives than most men of the cloth and has the street savvy strut of a self-described “gangsta.” He’s also a voracious hoarder of ideas, which is how radical hospitality got started a few years back. “When Steve [Cook] and Mike [Solomonov] and I first became bros, they gave me Danny Meyer’s book,” he recalls. “I’d never heard of the dude. And then I became obsessed with how life-changing hospitality could be. What if we treated the most vulnerable among us with that kind of love and welcoming?”

Since the early ‘80s, there has been a steady homeless population on our streets. Golderer is challenging how this nation has long dealt with the issue—as if it were a problem in a vacuum, something to be fixed. He points out that generations of data are in: There are no easy solutions.

“We’ve had this mindset about homelessness that is kind of a disease of the Baby Boomer mentality,” he says, walking through the airy sanctuary that serves anywhere between 200 and 500 guests per meal. “Which is: ‘I’m anxious that I’m about to die, so before I die I want to say something ontologically dishonest.’ Like, ‘I’m going to end homelessness.’ I want homelessness to end, too. But since I first moved to Philadelphia a decade ago, the needle hasn’t moved. So we need to build alternative models, too. If you were going to be honest, you’d say that, for people who experience desperation, the reality is it’s a dynamic problem. Half of the people here will not be here in nine months because all they needed was to be stabilized. So, what we’re trying to solve is eroded social capital. Data says that the average American, when they get fired or sick, has built up 18 months of social capital—loved ones or friends who have their back. If I was in trouble, I know who my people are that I’d turn to. The fundamental question we’re asking is, ‘Who do you turn to if you’ve run out of people to turn to?’”

By seeing his mission as a restorer of social capital, Golderer stands as a deeper alternative to, say, the trendy school of thought known as “Housing First”, which argues that what the homeless need are…homes. To Golderer, Housing First has its place, but not at the expense of treating the whole person and restoring his or her rainy day fund of social capital. For the last two years, an independent team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine has been studying BSM’s outcomes and has found that, of the guests who attend BSM for 6 months or more, there is a 50 percent increase in the number who report access to housing, mental health, and medical services compared to guests who have been coming for less than that.
“What’s underneath that is being part of a community,” Golderer says. “That by being greeted with love and getting what you need over and over again, you start feeling worthy of this attention and become more hopeful, optimistic and resilient.”

In effect, Golderer is proving that, as Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in the New York Times, hope actually is a type of anti-poverty program.

When Golderer defaults into God speak, he usually does so in the ironic lexicon of the young staff and volunteers who pour themselves into BSM every day. “That’s not exactly our guy’s brand, you know, that Jesus guy,” he’ll say when confronting an intolerant or shortsighted statement. But it’s telling that he refers to Jesus’ brand, because, though a preacher, Golderer is also a data-driven social entrepreneur. Solomonov and Cook found that out a couple of years ago when they first approached him, figuring he’d be excited to use their chicken bones to make soup for his guests.

But Golderer didn’t think the homeless needed another soup kitchen. He is one of those people who begins an inordinate number of sentences with the words What If. He leads with his dreams. So when he blurted out the idea to Solomonov and Cook that they open a soup restaurant together, with all of the proceeds going to his ministry, there was the expected practical concerns. “I have investors,” Cook said.  “They’ll want to see a return.”

They put their heads together and came up with a fresh approach: What about a different set of investors, an army of the like-minded?  A Kickstarter campaign last summer raised $180,000—beating the goal by $30,000. More important—talk about the power of invitation—it led to 2,000 Rooster Soup owners. “I walk down Broad Street now and a car will honk its horn and someone will shout, ‘Yo! Rooster Preacher! I’m an owner!” Golderer says.

“How cool is that? People are saying, ‘There’s this thing that wasn’t before, now it will be, and I’m a part of it,’” Golderer says, breaking into a smile that melts away his tough guy countenance. Walk through Broad Street Ministry—with its Motown soundtrack and multi-colored scraps of paper hanging from the sanctuary’s ceiling, upon which are scrawled anonymous guest’s dreams for their own lives and those of their neighbors—and, it turns out, Golderer’s summary of the cool way Rooster Soup has emerged is also a fitting way to describe all that he’s built: It wasn’t before, now it is, and, increasingly, countless Philadelphians are a part of it.

Header photo: Patrick Clark

 

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