Hundreds gathered last weekend for a clothing and shoe giveaway that doubled as a community barbecue, with blessings on the menu.

More than 500 were on hand for the second annual “Boot Up Philly” conference, which took place Oct. 22 in the parking lot of the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, next to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul

The initiative was headed by St. John’s Hospice, a Philadelphia-based outreach service that has been providing critical immediate and long-term supports to men experiencing homelessness in the inner-city area since 1963. Hundreds of residential and day guests receive meals, case management, on-site nursing, daily showers and access to a mail room.

Beneficiary of the Catholic Charities Appeal, the facility also welcomes around 250 men annually who transition from homelessness to independent living.

To date, SJH has served 86,000 meals, hosted 10,000 men in its cafeteria area, provided showers and clothing to 7,500 men, and assisted 7,000 men with case services.

Staff from the Archdiocesan Nutrition Development Services (NDS), which combats food insecurity through a network of community food pantries and federally funded school meal programs, teamed up with SJH for the giveaway ; the CSS Homeless and Housing Services Division, which includes SJH and several other sites; Martha’s Choice Marketplace, a CSS Choice Food Pantry in Montgomery County; the Archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry; and members of the Council of Knights of Columbus from 1191, who distributed winter coats for the children.

Completing the boot and outerwear tables were freshly grilled hot dogs, healthy snack bags and live music that had more than one attendee dancing.

The fun helped expand the “tunnel vision” that often prevents homeless people from being seen as people, said a client named Scott.

“He’s someone who’s in pain and in need, and he’s surrounded by people who can help or can help in some way,” he said.

A former restaurant manager, the North Carolina native, who has lived across the country, “lost everything” during the COVID-19-related lockdowns that prevented indoor dining. With his unemployment benefits exhausted, Scott said he was “stuck” with no residence or resources and found himself homeless.

Now in Philadelphia, Scott estimates he walks 10 to 20 miles a day, staying in shelters at night.

As a result, his feet are “getting some blister-like conditions,” he said. “They fall, and these boots will help a lot, especially when it’s raining outside.”

A 2016 study found that up to two-thirds of homeless people suffer from podiatry pain, limited mobility, frostbite, gangrene and trench foot (or immersion foot), which occurs when feet are wet for long periods of time. time Chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can make these problems worse.

These difficulties would have touched St. John Neumann, the beloved Philadelphia saint after whom the Boot Up Philly unit was modeled (SJH himself is named after St. John the Evangelist).

Known for his extreme selflessness and generosity to the poor, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia once joked that the only way he could change his shoes was by putting his right foot on his left foot, as he only had one pair, a group that traveled hundreds of kilometers through difficult terrain while the saint worked tirelessly to evangelize others.

The Gospel message to which St. John Neumann dedicated his life also drew participants to Boot Up Philly.

“A need brings me here, and it’s also a need to socialize,” said Carl Fletcher of Philadelphia. “You can get boots, a coat, and you can even find a friend, because that’s what you need: a friend like we have in Jesus. I suffer from depression, but not today, because these (events) are the kind of things that make you feel good and give you hope and understanding that we can do all things in Jesus Christ.”

Along with individual clients experiencing homelessness, the draw attracted a number of impoverished families, many of whom were refugees, said Amy Stoner, director of CSS’s Homeless and Community Services Divisions.

NDS Executive Director Lizanne Hagedorn said she and her team were “looking forward to seeing what else they could do” to support young children at next year’s event.

His colleague David Stier, who heads NDS community relations, said the gift helped show “a church that reached out” so that others could “feel the love of God.”

At the same time, those who staffed the event were also blessed, said SJH Program Director Barry Martin.

“These are precious moments,” he said. “They’re an expression of what we’re always trying to do: bring Christ to everyone we can, and when we touch their lives, they touch ours. It’s a beautiful exchange.”