A line began to form just as Salima Hawthorne brought her gray van to a stop on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in front of the Municipal Services Building.
She came bearing containers of meatballs, fish, soup and hot dogs, as well as bottled water and, for the kids, packs of Swedish Fish. In less than 15 minutes, the food, about 120 meals, was gone.
Hawthorne and her friend, Sameena Azeez, have been venturing to Love Park five times a week to distribute food to homeless people since Ramadan began April 23. They come about twice a week year-round and also hand out clothes.
“Only time we’re not out here is a blizzard,” said Hawthorne, who runs a daycare out of her home at 28th and Huntingdon streets in North Philly.
Hawthorne said she was moved to help the homeless population after she saw people eating out of the trash. About eight years ago, she began cooking platters and buying trays to distribute meals.
“I can’t give them a place to stay, but I can give them a little warmth and comfort in their stomachs,” she said.
Azeez, a business analyst who lives in Bala Cynwyd, remembers wanting to help after seeing economic disparities as she traveled from her home in Springfield to her high school in West Philly. She was also inspired to help by her father, a doctor who had an office at 5th Street and Indiana Avenue.
“He used to help people who didn’t have money,” she said. “He would see patients even if they didn’t have money.”
The pair met about three years ago at a West Philly mosque. Going through a nonprofit or religious organization brought too much red tape, so the women fund and organize the initiative almost entirely by themselves.
Coco Spencer said their efforts are appreciated. Many volunteers are afraid to get close to those who are unsheltered due to COVID-19, she said, but Hawthorne and Azeez are still conducting their operations face-to-face.
“(Salima) makes sure we have some dignity,” said Spencer, who has been homeless for three weeks. “It’s a relationship instead of it being, ‘Let’s dump food on them.’”
Hawthorne and Azeez are taking some precautions, including wearing masks and gloves, but they haven’t thought about staying home.
“They have to eat,” Azeez said. “I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”
“I put my trust in God,” Hawthorne said. “Everyday I take a risk to come out here and feed the people.”
On Wednesday evening, a friend of Hawthorne’s pulled over and stuck a handful of bills in her pocket to contribute to the effort.
Though they purchase the bulk of their supplies, the duo does get donations. Friends and neighbors will occasionally drop off a loaf of bread or case of water at Hawthorne’s home.
Hawthorne doesn’t mind putting up the money and calls herself the “Sadaqah queen,” referring to the Islamic term for charity.
“I live for it. I’ve been blessed, and I have it to give,” she said. “I’m not rich. I’m not poor, and I’m not middle class. I’m in the low-income bracket.”
Anyone interested in contributing food or drinks can send a message to [email protected] or drop it off at 2822 W. Huntingdon Street. Money can also be sent to $Unstoppabledawa on Cash App, and Azeez said all donations will be used for food and clothes.
(Note: An earlier version of the story referred to Sameena Elkhashab. She later requested that her maiden name, Azeez, be used in the article.)