During Christmas 2014, Margaux Murphy was driving around her Port Richmond neighborhood and noticed how many people were experiencing homelessness.
So she did what felt natural: went to Boston Market, bought meals, and started handing them out.
Ever since that moment, Murphy has worked alongside volunteers to serve Sunday dinners at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse. Pretty soon she was also doing a Monday brunch at the same church. And as the opioid crisis ballooned, so has Murphy’s work. She cut her 80-client cleaning service back to 20 clients in order to have the time to prepare food in her own kitchen to give out on Kensington street corners five days a week – adding up to between 600 and 800 meals a week.
What drives Margaux Murphy is quite simple: “People are hungry,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. I always want to say it in a more eloquent way, but people are hungry.”
That’s why Murphy started The Sunday Love Project approximately four years ago with the mission of “sharing food amongst the homeless while simultaneously building community.”
To pay for all this, Murphy, 42, raises money through her Facebook page. It costs about $1,000 a week to for all the food; her labor and that of others is all volunteer. Recently, Murphy was awarded a $16,000 Citizens Helping Citizens grant from the Citizens Charitable Foundation of Citizens Bank – a grant she didn’t even apply for but for which someone nominated her.
What will she use it for?
“Food,” Murphy said, standing on a rainy Tuesday afternoon at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, handing out fruit cups, homemade grilled cheese sandwiches, and brownies her niece baked.
All 70 were gone within about 10 minutes, as Murphy and another volunteer, Krista, 41, helped maintain order.
“She’s such a kind person,” said Krista, adding that she was still “teeter-tottering” with her recovery and did not want to use her last name. “She [Murphy] said once you see it, you can never un-see it. That was such a considerate thing. And she continues to do it [hand out food] with a smile on her face.”
The need, her wry sense of humor, and her humanitarian nature keep Murphy going.
A petite redhead with a big smile, Murphy had a father who wrestled with addiction, and she was married to someone with a substance use disorder. So the struggles of those she encounters in Kensington – and Murphy knows hundreds of people experiencing homelessness, people in recovery, and others experiencing homelessness, by name – are not foreign to her.
“They don’t know that I’m anybody,” said Murphy, who generally shies away from press and prefers to keep a low-profile, even though she was featured a couple of years ago on “Rachel Ray.”
“She’s phenomenal,” said Mikail Atkinson, 33, one of her regular clients. “She means well. It’s not for the camera, the pictures, and all that.”
When a straggler came up asking for food after it was all gone, Murphy pulled some fruit out of a take-out container that she was probably saving for herself and a package of Welch’s fruit snacks from the glove box.
But Murphy does much more than serving people food. She makes friends and helps people get into recovery and housing. She has a sober living fund so that people who come out of rehab can find a place to stay while they look for work, and Murphy estimates that she drives at least two people a week to detox at the NET Centers.
Tuesday after handing out food, Murphy stood and listened to a man named Daniel describe his latest travails, trying to get an apartment but losing the phone he needed to keep in touch with the case managers who were helping him.
“I got you a phone before,” Murphy said.
“Yeah, but that was when I was getting into recovery,” Daniel said.
Murphy promised to post something on her Facebook page and asked Daniel to call her tomorrow from someone else’s phone to see what she had turned up. Sure enough, that night Murphy asked her Facebook friends whether someone had a Metro or Cricket phone they no longer needed, following through on her vow, not letting her boy down.
Murphy frequently posts updates about those she knows from the streets on Facebook, respecting their privacy but keeping her community in the loop. “I can’t keep all that in,” Murphy said.
“I saw my girl who is celebrating her 26th birthday today,” Murphy recently wrote on Facebook. “Her life is shit, but when I wished her a happy birthday, she lit up. I told her that her dad had reached out to me. She said she would call but declined to do so when I offered. I told her she just needs to say the word and I will stand by her every step through recovery. She said she knows but just isn’t ready. She promised me she would at least check-in.”
Users and those she has helped get into recovery call Murphy frequently. Her phone rings day and night. Murphy said she is working on getting another phone so that she can turn the one everyone has the number for off sometimes and give herself a break.
To take care of herself, Murphy gets free sessions from her therapist, free adjustments from her chiropractor, and even has a few restauranteurs who give her free meals so that she, herself, can eat. But Murphy said she barely has a life outside of The Sunday Love Project and her dwindled cleaning business.
“I totally don’t have a social life or anything anymore, and I often miss things that are really important to me,” said Murphy, who has little time for a significant other. But she is not complaining.
“I love what I’m doing,” she said. “I’ll do it forever.”
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 23 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia's push towards economic justice. Read more of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.