Church members, others offer all they can to help some of C-U's neediest

Church members, others offer all they can to help some of C-U's neediest

CHAMPAIGN – It's about 8:30 p.m. After two hours mainly spent outside in frigid temperatures, volunteers are ready to call it a night.

The Salvation Army truck they use has just pulled back into the thrift store parking lot on North Market Street when volunteer driver Dan Davies, 56, gets a cell phone call from a Champaign police officer, saying that a 61-year-old woman needs food. As the truck makes a U-turn for the 2-mile trek south, volunteer Karen Krusa fills three bags with food for the woman.

When they arrive, Dan's wife, Barb Davies, 48, the leader of the group, gives the officer a list of local agencies that help the homeless. The woman seems reluctant to stay at a shelter, but police won't let her stay in the underground garage where they found her.

Barb Davies calls a local emergency shelter to see if they will allow the woman to stay there, although it is past their usual cutoff time for evaluations.

As she waits to find out her fate, the woman, who introduces herself as Ann, takes shelter in the warm truck, telling Krusa that she has been homeless for 2 1/2 years. This is her second time on the street.

After getting off the phone, Davies says a shelter employee may have a couch available in her home for the woman to sleep on. The truck drives the woman to the police station to wait until arrangements can be confirmed.

This is the Canteen Run. Two nights a week, a truck parks in front of locations throughout downtown Champaign where low-income and homeless people congregate.

The truck is loaded with plastic bins and coolers full of food and drinks and laundry hampers stuffed with clothing and blankets. Toiletries are also available.

At each stop, whoever is riding in the back puts down a black plastic step stool to help bridge the gap between the back of the truck and the pavement. Volunteers, most from area churches, then jump out and wait for people to grab free food and clothing. If the needy aren't there already, they seek them out.

Sometimes volunteers just pray with the people or offer them information about services available.

"We try to find out what their needs are and direct them," Barb Davies said.

The Canteen Runs started three years ago through Partnering Against Homeless, a networking body of government agencies, not-for-profits and programs that serve the homeless. The Salvation Army volunteered the use of its canteen truck.

Dan and Barb Davies, who are Champaign residents and members of the Savoy United Methodist Church, were the first two volunteers for the program.

"We look at it as mission work," Dan Davies said. "We're trying to do what we're called to do. It's something we're passionate about."

The truck currently goes out on Monday and Thursday nights. Organizers want to take it out every night of the week.

"You don't have to belong to a church (to volunteer)," Barb Davies noted.

Until this year, the Canteen Runs only went out on Mondays during the winter. Last summer, volunteers would encounter as many as 60 people, though whether all of those people were homeless is unknown.

"We were getting extremely busy," Barb Davies said. "We stepped up asking for donations."

The Canteen Run is quickly outgrowing its truck, especially in the winter when bulky coats make it even more crowded. Organizers are trying to raise enough money to buy a used concession trailer that would allow meals to be prepared on the spot or even a used ambulance that would offer more storage space and could be easily cleaned. That would probably cost about $35,000.

On this night, volunteers are handing out ham sandwiches made by a family from the Davies' church. Other nights they may give out peanut butter sandwiches.

While much of what the Canteen Run volunteers hand out is donated, it still costs between $200 and $300 per month in gas to operate the truck.

Those receiving food and clothing don't have to show identification of any kind. Volunteers count on the honesty of those they're helping.

"The little kids sometimes see us as a goodie truck," Barb Davies admitted. "We're not out to select who we help. We want to bring the body of Christ together."

While some nights are busy, on Thanksgiving night, for example, the Canteen Run encountered just one person in need of help.

"You never know what kind of night you're going to encounter," Barb Davies said as the truck pulled out to start the night's journey. "It's just the fact we're out there."

At the evening's first stop, the Illinois Terminal, the group meets a variety of people. A man on his way to West Virginia wants only a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, volunteers sort through shoes looking for size 13 boots for another man.

"Y'all have a good day," an appreciative man calls back to volunteers as he leaves with a sandwich and some hot chocolate.

Back on the road, Barb Davies braces herself on the bouncy ride with one hand on a cabinet and the other on a counter as she tells volunteers about a new emergency family shelter opening in St. Mary's Catholic Church's Oscar Romero Center in Champaign. Up until now, there had been no place in the community where homeless women and children could stay together until they found a more long-term solution.

Conversation then turns to how things had gone at the train station.

"There weren't many in there tonight," Karen Krusa's husband, Doug, observes.

Dan Davies notes that because it's early in the month, some have just received Social Security checks. Barb Davies explains that the homeless often have their mail sent to a friend's address or to a place like St. Jude Catholic Worker House that allows them to use its address.

On this night, the volunteers don't encounter many familiar faces, although many nights they do.

"A lot of these people you get to know," Barb Davies said.

The next stop is the Champaign Public Library.

Bill Taylor, another Savoy United Methodist Church member who met up the Canteen Run at the train station, walks through the building, scanning the faces, looking for those in need. He approaches some people using public access computers.

"You need anything from Salvation Army?" he asks no one in particular. "Coffee or cake?"

No one seems to respond. Taylor approaches a disabled man with whom he's clearly acquainted and quietly converses with him.

Later, two college-aged girls who had been sitting at the computers come out to the truck, seeking some warm beverages and food.

While the girls are being helped, Doug Krusa says he and Karen began volunteering with the Canteen Run after reading an article about it in the newspaper.

"We spent one evening doing it, and we've done it every week since," he says.

Krusa says something as simple as seeing a little girl at the train station smile after receiving help makes it worthwhile for him.

"It's like Christmas for them," he said.

The hardest part is when he can offer people on the streets only some food to eat and blankets to cover themselves, Krusa says.

"It's very sad," he says.

Not every moment is so poignant, though; as the truck moves on, volunteers try to keep the mood light with stories and jokes.

"Even if we don't see a lot of people, we always have a good time," Barb Davies says.

A stop at Sixth and Green streets allows volunteers to canvass campus, looking for anyone who is homeless. But on this bitter cold night, none is found.

The Canteen truck returns to the train station. Dan Davies takes some coffee to cab drivers waiting for fares. Taylor gets a hug after finding some scarves, hats, gloves and blankets for Chicago resident Latifah Smith and her 7-year-old nephew, Charles Thigpen.

"That made my day," Taylor says later.

Taylor has been helping the homeless for years.

"I know the guys on the street," he said. "I'm one of them. I'll find them anything they need."

Taylor goes to a lot of church rummage sales to find clothes for the Canteen Run, and his daughter bakes for it.

"I think it's really nice," Marquieta Walker says after Taylor locates some clothes for her 2-year-old daughter, Amari Conner. "It's a blessing for people who don't have money."

Back at the truck, Barb Davies is trying to help Champaign resident Rebecca Adams and her 10-year-old daughter Kylee find a place to stay in anticipation of the friends with whom they are staying asking them to leave.

"I think it's very helpful and sweet," Adams says of the Canteen Run volunteers' efforts.

For Jason Fisher, the youth minister at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Champaign, volunteering with the Canteen Run is a way for him to encourage members of his congregation to meet and connect with homeless people.

"We can be people they (the homeless) are friends with and they know," Fisher said. "We invite them over and introduce them to our friends. Any one of us could become homeless."

Kristy Wilson, who attended a recent Canteen Run meeting, knows the problems of homeless teens and young adults only too well – she is the residential services coordinator at Community Elements. Wilson cited statistics that show that there are at least 367 homeless teens in Champaign County.

Wilson said the causes of youths becoming homeless are many – substance abuse, mental health problems, abuse and many others. But she's not without hope.

"They (homeless youth) are incredibly resilient," Wilson said.

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