Sunday, November 23, 2008

A slow start...

Our first trip into the city with four gallons of soup was something of a disappointment. We had planned to pick up a homeless man of our acquaintance by the name of Darrell and have him direct us to the general vicinity of the drug house which he frequents. There, we planned to serve a hot meal to as many souls as we might encounter.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find Darrell. Though he usually begs both in the morning and late afternoon at a particular intersection, we saw no trace of him nor his wife (she usually begs at a different but nearby intersection). Perhaps they were picked up by the police - that has already happened to them four times this year. If so, they'll likely be released on Monday due to overcrowding at the jail (just long enough to suffer serious heroin withdrawals, but not long enough to get clean).

Without our guide, we journeyed on our own to the area of Whittier and Gratiot, near where Darrell and his wife often spend the night in a windowless, abandoned house. Driving up and down streets where the vast majority of houses are not homes but merely boarded up shells, we saw few people. We passed a tiny Baptist church - apparent only by the sign outside, since it was once either a home or a small professional building - and stopped to see if they could help us find a way to reach the local homeless.

We met a man who introduced himself to us as Brother Taylor in the parking lot of the church (really just a closed-off section of alley behind the building) and we explained our mission to him. Although he confirmed that there were a large number of homeless people in the area, he couldn't really suggest a good place for us to set up our mobile food station... Brother Taylor cautioned us about safety in the area, advising us to stay in well-traveled areas, and finally suggested that we set up in the parking lot of a local grocery store.

We thanked Brother Taylor for his help and he invited us to come back and worship with his congregation sometime. He said there were "a couple of white guys" who came to their church on occasion - and besides, "God doesn't have a colour". We plan to attend one of their services in the coming weeks.

After bidding farewell to Brother Taylor and his tiny church, we set out to find the grocery store that he had suggested. It was very close, perhaps only a quarter of a mile away. Driving through the parking lot it was very clear, however, that there weren't any homeless people lingering in the area. In fact, there were a lot of newer model cars in the parking lot and many people coming and going with cart-loads of groceries, even though there were vacant and burned-out houses just on the other side of the alley behind the lot.

Deciding to bypass this store, we quickly came to Gratiot Avenue. We drove up and down the street for several blocks in each direction from Whittier and decided to stop at a corner near what seemed to be a popular bus stop (at least six or seven people were waiting when we pulled up). At the corner of a side street and Gratiot, we stretched out a towel on the hood of the car and pulled out our stock pot of soup and box of bread bowls.

We cut and scooped three or four of the bowls in preparation for serving some hot soup - and then watched as the bus came and picked up everyone at the stop. No one got off the bus. Cars drove past us, a few racing into or out of the neighbourhood, and no one stopped. Few people even looked at us. No one was walking - the street was busy yet desolate at the same time.

After ten minutes of waiting - and realizing that we desperately needed a banner proclaiming, "FREE SOUP!" - we decided to pack up and move on. The wind was blowing sharply and the aluminium stock pot would cool down quickly if we left it on the hood of the car much longer.

We drove back down Whittier and then Outer Drive, finally reaching the service drive of the I-94 expressway. By this time it was already 4:30pm or so and the sun was dipping low. We searched again in vain for Darrell and finally made our way up to Moross on the service drive.

Here we found three men begging. More accurately, we found two begging on opposite corners - and one apparently waiting his turn to beg at the corner of Moross and the freeway service drive. We pulled over near the waiting man and called out to him, asking if he was hungry. He said yes - and so we stopped and served our first bowl of soup. While he sat on the porch of a nearby home (we suppose it was abandoned, though it didn't really appear to be) eating his soup, we made bowls for the two men standing on the corners.

One of the men on the street corner said that his name was Jim and thanked us profusely. He said that he needed a couple of dollars to buy a bus ticket to the other side of town so that he could stay with his uncle, but alas, we had no money (only soup and bread). He thanked us again anyway and then left the corner, walking down the service drive and abruptly vanishing (this often seems to happen - our attempts to catch up with folks who are leaving these various street corners are usually unsuccessful).

The other man begging on the street corner was already known to us as "Russ". He took his soup bowl and promptly put it in a pile of leaves next to him - and then continued to hold up his tattered cardboard sign that read, "help, hungry".

We have spoken to Russ many times in the past - he has begged on the same street corner for over two years now - and we know that he is addicted to both heroin and crack cocaine (what is known as a "snowball"). So it wasn't surprising that he put the soup down and kept begging - the money that he begs isn't for food, it's for tonight's hit of smack and crack. He would eat the soup later - he obviously didn't have enough money for his drugs yet and desperately needed to use the last half-hour of daylight to get what he could.

On the way back to the car after feeding Russ and Jim, we noticed that the first fellow whom we had fed seemed to be done with his soup - so we offered him more. He accepted and said that it was absolutely delicious. We filled his bread bowl up again and wished him a good evening.

We then departed that corner and tried once more to locate our friend Darrell another mile up the road. No luck, so we decided to end the mission before the soup became too cool and couldn't be saved.

That was the end of our first Soup Odyssey - stay tuned for our next attempt to feed the hungry of the city!

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