Big Super Feast faces a dilemma, but will go on
The Gulf Coast’s biggest holiday event for homeless and low-income people is starving for money, but the Big Super Feast will go on for Thanksgiving Day.
“We did have some challenges, but that is all worked out,” said Stephanie Lewis, regional director for the City Wide Club, which puts on the annual holiday spread. “We’ll be there Thursday.”
Lewis said the group came to an agreement with Houston First, which manages the George R. Brown Convention Center, to waive some fees and charges related to using the facility. Earlier this month, the group indicated lower donations — along with rising demand — had left the feast’s future uncertain.
Meanwhile, rental fees possibly were on the rise. Leroy Woodard, national director of City Wide Club of Clubs and son of the event’s founder, said even as officials made concessions last year, they warned him that free use of tables and chairs no longer would be extended. He said originally, he was asked to pay $5,000 for both the Thanksgiving and Christmas events.
“I protested that because we feel like no charity wants an extra expense, especially not now,” Woodard said, noting the recovery from Hurricane Harvey continues.
Officials with Houston First said the agreement is similar to previous years, chalking some of the confusion up to an assessment of their in-kind donation that may have been mistaken for a bill.
“We have hosted this event for more than three decades and we’re happy to continue doing so,” Houston First spokeswoman Holly Clapham-Rosenow said Tuesday.
She said some of the worries came as a surprise to Houston First because the contracts for the events were signed in September. City Wide will pay about $3,500 for rental fees to Houston First and about $4,500 for insurance for the event, Clapham-Rosenow said. The group must provide its own insurance, and Houston First cannot cover that cost, she said.
The struggles to keep supper on the table for the group — which has a 40-year history and draws acclaim for its army of volunteers who take time to serve others — come at an especially trying time for Houston. Demand, organizers said, is at an all-time high as many people continue to recover from flooded homes more than a year after Harvey swamped Harris County.
Harvey also is partly blamed for the scramble for money. People opened their wallets to national groups and others in the wake of the storm, but giving for local groups slowed.
“Everybody is still in a recovery mode,” Lewis said. “We still are striving to meet those needs. But the money isn’t coming in like it would. Everyone stepped up and the programs during the recovery did a lot of things. Then they left. The churches and organizations were left with the remnants and the need is still there.”
That has led to some frustration as City Wide has fed and clothed many Houston-area people over the past few months, Woodard said.
“I am concerned that the money went away,” Woodard said, noting many national groups benefited from generosity aimed at Harvey victims.
The most visible and lauded charity effort, led by Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, raised $41.6 million, distributing it to national and regional groups. In an August update, Watt said the plan is for the groups to rebuild homes, develop community programs and continue feeding people across most of southeast Texas.
Woodard said when City Wide asked for funding, it never heard back. A call to Watt’s Wisconsin-based foundation Tuesday was not returned.
While donations poured in during the last four months of 2017, City Wide’s total contributions declined, according to its federal tax filings. From 2011 to 2016, the charity averaged nearly $557,000 in annual monetary or in-kind donations, spending about $267,000 annually on the two events. Last year, costs for the event were cut to less than $196,000 and the agency reported total donations of $441,699.
For years, officials estimated the events served about 35,000 people. Last year, despite a dip in fundraising, organizers estimated they served 44,000 people.
As a result, Woodard said he is looking for more support across the board to make the event work.
“My only discomfort with Houston First is I don’t feel it is fair for us to pay all of this money that we pay to Houston First and the corporation that was before them and the corporation that was before them when we have shown we are working to provide something, for free, to the community,” Woodard said.
“They have never given anything for free,” he said of Houston First. “We have had to pay to be down there from day one.”
Woodard said he has approached officials with Houston First, or city officials, suggesting waiving the entire fee.
“I think after 40 years it is reasonable to say, ‘Why not just bless the community and be a blessing, let’s not charge them,’” Woodard said.
City Wide is charged less than other nonprofits, Clapham-Rosenow said. The typical rate for the two main exhibit halls the feast uses would be $10,000 per day, with additional costs for days setting up and tearing down the event.
Little staffing from convention center workers is needed because of the army of volunteers, she said.
“They have an army of volunteers who are the reason for the event,” Clapham-Rosenow said.
Regardless the recent struggles, that army will descend this week to serve. Though funding floundered after Harvey, Houstonians’ ability to chip in did not.
“They are ready to work and put some sweat equity in,” Woodard said. “We won’t turn anyone away. We will give out the last meal and the last baskets of food and the last piece of clothing… This is Houston. Our heart is big and we are genuine.”