@story MARCUS COKER & MARLA CANTRELL
@image MARCUS COKER
FEEDING THE HOMELESS (Marcus Coker)
It’s a Saturday morning in downtown Fort Smith, between the railroad tracks and the Arkansas River, and a small group gathers by an open pavilion. There’s a concrete divider that blocks the view from the road, so they remain mostly unnoticed. The clouds have not yet broken, and a cold wind blows. A man zips his coat up, and a woman shoves her hands inside her pockets. Hats and gloves, like the sunshine, are scarce at times.
At 11:15 a large white van pulls off Clayton Expressway onto “H” Street. On its side is printed St. Paul United Methodist Church, and it’s towing a trailer full of supplies. The driver, Darlene Morris, parks by the pavilion, then gets out and begins working. She’s joined by a dozen volunteers. They, along with some of the regulars who come here to eat, set up tables and metal folding chairs on one end of the pavilion. On the other end, they put out aluminum pans filled with lasagna, vegetables, bread, and dessert.
The work goes quickly. They’ve done this a lot. In fact, they’re here the first Saturday of each month as part of a program called COTS—Church on the Streets. COTS is a ministry shared by several local churches, and its aim is simple—feed the area’s homeless and hungry.
The crowd, which has grown to at least fifty, sits down. There are a lot of men, most of them unshaven. There are women with children, with babies. “There are more homeless people than you think. Of course, some have homes and are simply in need of food,” says Darlene. “We try to make sure they get a good healthy meal, with carbohydrates. We are serving them, and we make them feel special when we do that.”
Darlene is smiling, talking to as many as she can and patting them on the shoulder, giving them a hug. If you ever meet Darlene, she’ll hug you too. It’s simply who she is. “I try to go around and make contact with everybody,” says Darlene. “The tendency toward homeless people is to look away, or look down. But we all put our clothes on the same way. We are all God’s people.”
Once everyone is served, Darlene stands in the middle of the tables. She asks that God bless each and every person there. “We always pray with them and we always say a prayer before we leave the church to come here. We ask for God’s guidance.”
Each month, St. Paul United Methodist plans their menu, and Karney More, who’s retired and has been helping with COTS for nearly fifteen years, buys the food. “We’ve never received any money from the church budget. It’s all from volunteering and donations—monetary donations and food donations,” says Karney.
The volunteers meet at 9:00 in the morning to make the food and load the trailer. Today they met earlier to put together care packages—Ziploc bags filled with socks, gloves, and a hat. “We gather items all the time,” says Darlene. “A couple of us are always scrounging around. We’re forever needing hats, gloves, and coats. At Christmastime, we’ll hand out blankets. Sometimes we pass out healthcare packages with deodorant, soap, and a wash cloth.”
People are still eating, and Darlene hands out tickets for redeeming the care packages, to make sure there’s enough for everyone. “Whether it’s the food or the packages, we never know how many to prepare for,” says Darlene. “People find out about it at the last minute, and we just don’t know how many will show up. Sometimes we have extra food, but sometimes we run out. If that happens, we give out gallon-sized bags with cheese and crackers, beef jerky, and Vienna sausages. We call it Plan B.”
The people involved with COTS show up no matter what the weather. Darlene says, “Do you stop eating when it’s cold outside, or because it’s too hot? They expect us to be here, and we’re here. We’ve been here when it was so cold we would huddle together to keep warm. Karney passed out this past August because it was too hot.”
St. Paul United Methodist got involved with COTS after the program was started by Evangel Temple, which provides meals at the pavilion on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. Westark Church of Christ volunteers the third Saturday, and Woodlands Church the fifth. Many of the volunteers, however, come from other area churches, or simply the community.
Everyone is welcome, and the church never knows who will show up to help. “We’ve got one volunteer with Alzheimer’s, another who’s blind. We have back problems and heart problems, but that doesn’t matter,” says Darlene. “We’re misfits, but we’re good misfits. We’re mission oriented, so this is what we do.”
It’s just past noon, and most everyone is finished with their meal. As the volunteers start to pack up, people approach the trailer to redeem their tickets for care packages. Darlene’s talking to everyone as she distributes the socks, hats, and gloves. A young boy asks for an extra package to give to his brother.
Darlene explains why she helps with COTS nearly every month. “I’ve always been involved in helping others. I’m a people person, and I can relate,” says Darlene. “I’ve been there—so poor—almost homeless. We didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from.” Darlene starts to cry and walks away for a moment.
When she returns, a man named Lucky approaches to thank Darlene. He has a headache because of the cold, but says, “I’m fortunate. The good Lord gets me up every morning and puts me to bed every night. I’m old, so he lets me take a nap in the afternoon.” Darlene and Lucky laugh. Darlene places her hand on top of his.
“Helping others makes me feel good.” Darlene looks around. Most everyone has gone home—wherever that is. A few still linger in the sun. For now, the clouds have broken. Darlene says, “Hopefully, we can give them hope. We all need hope.”
NO HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Marla Cantrell)
Chuck was one of the fifty who showed up at the pavilion for the lunch served by the Church on the Streets. He invited me to visit him at his campsite the following week. This is his story.
In December 2009, Chuck was working at a factory in Fort Smith. He lived in a rooming house where he had a bed, a hot plate, and a key to lock his door at night.
But before Christmas the job ended, a result of the crumbling economy. “The work just dried up,” Chuck says. His money dwindled, the rent came due, and Chuck had nowhere to go. “I knew some of the guys who live down on the Arkansas River. I went down there and I asked them if they had a place for me to stay.
“It was scary. I was getting close to sixty and I’d never been homeless before. But you adapt. In the spring of 2010, I got me a bike with a buggy behind it. I started scrapping - what everybody else calls dumpster diving – to make a few dollars. I get up every morning at 4:30. Usually, I make some oatmeal, coffee. Then I’m on my bike, going in and out of alleys, looking for any metal: copper, aluminum, anything God makes available for me. I’ve never stolen a thing.”
God has given Chuck a stash of metal over the past two years. Chuck is telling this story at his campsite, near a tumble of computer shells. Milk crates overflowing with plastic-covered wiring fill a spot behind his tent. In time, Chuck will rip the metal from the plastic and take it back to town to sell to a recycling center.
At the entrance to the makeshift camp is a gray-haired man, hunched over, trying to pick up an armload of firewood someone dropped beside the paved road that borders this homeless community.
The wind is sharp today and it burns as you breathe. I watch the man, who’s dressed in layers - thermal shirt, T-shirt, flannel shirt - scurry down the steep embankment and disappear in the woods.
Oak and birch and maple hide the fifteen scattered campsites right now, but that will end when the leaves fall. Near the sandy path a decaying sleeping bag lies half buried in the woods. Empty water bottles spring up like bulbs beneath the trees. What’s not in all the clutter are liquor bottles. There’s not one in sight.
“I don’t drink,” Chuck says. “I don’t use drugs. Most people think that’s what the homeless do. Only problem I ever had was gambling,” Chuck says. “I liked to go to the casino. I try to stay away now.”
So he keeps busy. Every morning he goes to the Community Rescue Mission to shower and shave. He eats most of his evening meals there as well, and goes to the pavilion on “H” Street when local churches stop by with hot meals.
At camp, he has Styrofoam coolers to keep milk fresh, a propane heater to keep his nine-by-thirteen tent warm, and a battery-powered radio to keep him entertained after night falls.
“If you’ve got to be homeless, this is the place to do it. So many people help. The churches help. The Community Rescue Mission’s great,” he says, and holds up a green canister of Coleman propane the director of the non-profit has recently given him.
A dog, nearly as tall as the folding table where Chuck is sitting, wanders by. “That’s Tigger,” Chuck says and smiles for the first time. A few of his teeth are missing, and he quickly covers his mouth. But the dog continues to nudge him, so he pets it, then runs a finger beneath the dog’s blue collar, checking to make sure it’s not too tight. The dog is brown and spotted, and has one eye that is so pale it’s almost white.
“This life’s not for everybody, but we take care of each other. We don’t ask many questions. It’s mostly men here, but we did have a family here for a while. The woman stayed with the two kids while the man worked. They got an apartment. We were glad. It’s no life for a kid,” Chuck says, and shakes his head.
“If it wasn’t for unemployment insurance, this river would be lined from bridge to bridge with the homeless.”
Tigger lays his head on Chuck’s knee. The river sways against the bank. Yellow leaves from a nearby birch flutter and then fall. Chuck takes out a metal box no bigger than a sardine can, taps in some tobacco, and cranks it until an unfiltered cigarette emerges.
He holds the cigarette between his fingers and looks past his tent, which is draped with mismatched tarps that are tattered and flapping in the wind. He is speculating about the coming winter, and then the following spring when thunderstorms will inevitably hit. He fears he’ll face another ice storm, another hail storm, another flood. If he can survive another year he’ll be sixty-two and eligible for the Social Security he’s earned over the course of his life.
“Yeah,” Chuck says, “one more year. Then I’ll have enough to get a little place. I won’t forget these guys, though,” he says and points to his best friend, who’s recovering from the flu, and is huddled beneath a tarp at the next camp. I wouldn’t have made it this long without them.” He pulls a silver lighter from his shirt pocket, flips it open and then cups his other hand around the cigarette.
There is graciousness about Chuck. As he walks me out, he takes my arm as we navigate a steep hill. He assures me repeatedly during the course of the hour we spent together that I am safe with him beside me. I feel safe. The camp, which could easily be described as a place of squalor, seemed to shift as Chuck explained the mechanics of how he lives and the work he does.
When we reach civilization again, another car pulls up, letting out three more of Chuck’s campmates. They grab their backpacks and head back to camp, steeling themselves for another cold night on the river.
You Can Help
The Fort Smith Community Rescue Mission takes donations at 310 North “F” Street from 8-6 daily.
Turkeys and hams for the mission to serve through the holidays.
Cold and flu medicine
A complete list at http://fscrm.org.
COTS is gathering blankets, stocking hats, heavy socks, and gloves this month.
To donate, or to volunteer, call St. Paul United Methodist Church at 479.783.5908.