Center City: Philly Restart’s Food Line Has an Identity, A Family

Since its debut in 2002, the volunteers at Philly Restart treat each other and guests like family.

Philly Restart is like a large family.

Serving between 4,000 and 5,000 people a year, the nonprofit caters to people experiencing homelessness and people who are in need of a government-issued ID.

Adam Bruckner started Philly Restart in December 2002, providing food to those in need. Since then, the offerings have become twofold, including administering paper checks (offered in a line near the Free Library of Philadelphia) to guests in need of a government-issued IDs and a buffet meal (offered in a line ear the Logan Circle Fountain) to anyone who is hungry for hot dogs, doughnuts, pasta, and Bolognese. The services are administered every Monday at 4 p.m. on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. 

Guests wait to speak to Adam Bruckner, director of Philly Restart, at 4 p.m. on Mondays on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Bruckner will help them fund the price of a new state ID or birth certificate while, on the other side of the street, volunteers from Philly Restart administer guests a buffet meal.

Throughout the years, Bruckner has gathered a cohort of volunteers to administer the meals while he writes checks for IDs. 

“They do a good job of celebrating [birthdays] and making that kind of a little family space,” Bruckner said of the volunteers who run the food line.

Guests in the ID line come and go based on need, but many of those who wait for the meal are regulars.

“We call it a little ‘Monday family,’” Bruckner added. 

Some volunteers, like Mike Breen, who is also a volunteer with Project HOME, heard about Philly Restart through other organizations. Others stumbled upon the line by chance and used it to catch their footing. Joseph Craig spotted the food line from inside the Free Library on Valentine’s Day of 2005, ventured over to grab a bite to eat, and never left.

Regardless of their entryway, the volunteers cater to all who come out, ensuring that guests are fed and no hot dogs nose-dive onto the pavement. 

“This is just a wonderful group,” said Suzy Kafitz, a 15-year Philly Restart volunteer who oversees hot dog distribution. “A very kind, family sort.”

Read more about Philly Restart’s work, and the challenges people experiencing homelessness face when they need to obtain a government-issued ID, here

Today, the lines can 50-people long (on both sides) even before 4 p.m. But when the food line began in 2002, it was short and understaffed.

Buck Gardner (left) and Brownie Mitchell (right) visit old friends at Philly Restart’s food line by the Logan Circle Fountain.

“It used to be 10 or 15 of us,” said Brownie Mitchell, a member of the original volunteer crew. “We used to run this thing.”

Mitchell made a surprise appearance at the food line on a recent Monday along with his cousin, Buck Gardner, who also volunteered in 2002.

“That was a golden Monday,” said Bruckner, who keeps a Google Doc of Monday memories where he jots down seven bullet points each week. 

“Brownie comes through maybe once a year, twice a year,” Brucker said. “Buck comes through once or twice a year but usually not when Brownie’s there. That was a gift.”

Gardner and Mitchell were experiencing homelessness in 2002. They slept at various locations on the Parkway and visited Bruckner for both the Monday meal and a check for an ID. Both are thankful for the program, Bruckner, and their IDs, in helping them get back on their feet. 

But for Gardner, who is now widowed, the most valuable gift he received as a result of the program was the opportunity to start a family with his wife. The Gardners met on the Parkway in the early 2000s while both were experiencing homelessness. 

“I would see her every day and I told her, ‘You’re gonna be mine,’” Gardner said.

And on Aug. 12, 2006, after helping the two obtain IDs, Bruckner officiated their marriage in front of the Logan Circle Fountain. Bruckner has officiated nine or 10 weddings at the request of friends, he said. Gardner’s was one of, if not the, first wedding he officiated. 

“They looked great,” Bruckner said of the couple. “They were totally in love. They had a totally different story than anybody else I had known.”

Buck Gardner.

Other intimate, and at times violent, relationships have developed between volunteers and guests throughout the years. 

Drew Smith, who has been attending the Monday services on-and-off as a guest since 2002, was stabbed by the Logan Circle Fountain on a Monday evening around 2010. He stumbled toward Bruckner and the Philly Restart line, grabbing onto one man’s shirt so forcibly it tore from the man’s body, he said. 

Bruckner called an ambulance. 

“He saved my life,” Smith said.

While not every Monday involves a life-or-death interaction, some guests in line can become violent or invasive of other people’s space. And when it comes to saving lives or protecting people from smaller altercations, Philly Restart’s most valuable asset, according to Bruckner, is Fila Stanley, the organization’s longest-standing volunteer.

“Fila has been there longer than any of us,” Bruckner said, speaking to Stanley’s presence in the area before Philly Restart’s beginnings. “He’s such an important figure with protecting volunteers and just being a social conduit between our volunteers and our folks who are getting served.” 

According to Stanley, one recent Monday a woman in line was grabbed by a visibly intoxicated guest. She called out to Stanley, who intervened by knocking the man down. 

Stanley takes pride in helping guests in line because they are his “people,” he said. 

A born-and-bred Philadelphian — and unapologetic Philly sports fan — he bikes to the Parkway from the apartment he rents in North Philadelphia. But when he first joined Bruckner in 2002, he was sleeping on a bench outside the Free Library. 

He did not have a state ID and therefore could not find legal employment, but worked for a newspaper company under-the-table. He made it work, and he worked hard.

On Bruckner’s first day on the Parkway, he made the mistake of placing his supplies on Stanley’s bench, Stanley recalled.

Bruckner does not recall the exact encounter but remembers being struck by Stanley’s dynamic personality and clever nature. 

“I remember thinking, ‘This guy was meant for more than this,’” Bruckner added.

But in a landscape where Black, low income, less educated, and unemployed people are disproportionately arrested, and where formerly incarcerated citizens are almost ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public, hopeful potential couldn’t change Stanley’s situation overnight.

Stanley served jail time in the early ‘80s and experienced homelessness after his release. He had been a victim of drug-related gun violence, arrested for holding a weapon. A series of events that depict the typical black person’s experience, he said. 

Fila Stanley volunteers with Philly Restart every Monday at 4 p.m. on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He has been serving people through Philly Restart since 2002.

“I’m from the projects,” Stanley added. “It’s either you had a wicked jump shot or you sold drugs.” 

Bruckner helped Stanley obtain a state ID, after which Stanley saved-up money for an apartment. This had its own challenges, as Philadelphia has a deficit of affordable housing units. To afford a one-bedroom rental home in Pennsylvania at the Fair Market Price, a minimum-wage earner must work 86 hours a week, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Despite the challenges that accompanied his search, acquiring the place on his own gave him a greater incentive to maintain it, Stanley said.

Stanley’s experience living on the streets helps him connect with the guests he serves. In the early stages of Philly Restart’s existence, he used his street credibility to debunk rumors about Bruckner and to encourage community members to take advantage of his services.  

“For the first year, nobody would come to get anything to eat from him because they thought he was a police officer,” Stanley said. “I had to reassure everybody that I knew that he was cool.”

Stanley knew people wouldn’t trust Bruckner if he had no one to back him.

“All these people gotta do is check my résumé,” Stanley explained.

With a few exceptions, like family deaths, the two have appeared on the Parkway every Monday since 2002. Bruckner invited Stanley to the first — and only — Thanksgiving dinner Bruckner ever cooked, and Stanley watched from the sidelines as Bruckner scored his first — and only — goal for the Philadelphia Kixx soccer team, where he was employed when they met.

“Adam is like a brother to me,” Stanley said.

Some volunteers and guests continue to battle financial obstacles, housing insecurity, or homelessness after seeking Philly Restart’s services. 

Like 24% of Americans in 2018, Smith is experiencing chronic homelessness, meaning that he has been experiencing homelessness for over a year. While he currently sleeps outdoors, he hopes to secure indoor shelter for the winter.

Smith has experienced chronic homelessness for more than 20 years. Chronic homelessness is a state where a person has experienced homelessness for at least a year, or for multiple episodes amounting to a year in length in the time frame of three years. Out of people experiencing homelessness in a single night in 2018, 24% were considered chronically homeless, according to The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Disability, unemployment, and lack of family support are among multiple factors that can contribute to a chronically homeless state, according to the National Symposium on Homelessness Research.

He wants housing, badly, he said. But he feels that he has still benefited from the organization, he added.

The ID acquired by Smith, the stabbing victim, helped him access Social Security, seek alcohol treatment programs to overcome a drinking problem, and renew his sense of identity.

“Some people come down here, and they feed you, and they look down on you,” Smith said about other organizations that feed those who are hungry. But Philly Restart volunteers offer him friendship, Smith added.

Drew Smith smiles after enjoying a meal with his friends at Philly Restart on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

“It sounds crazy, but it is a wonderful group,” Kafitz said. “You do get people who are who are dealing with all sorts of problems, I have them too. They get through the day, you get through the day with them.”

Not all guests will return the next week, but those who are guaranteed a helping of hot dogs, pasta, doughnuts, and a few friendly conversations.

“When somebody stops coming, I wonder,” Kafitz said. “I just hope they’re well. I don’t stop thinking about them — any of them.”

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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