T. COMFORT — Debbie Horn passed a white plastic bag toward the backseat.
“This is cornbread that I’ve promised Richard,” she said.
As she and her friends drove to the meeting place, they shared updates on whom has recently moved, who is in the hospital, and who they missed seeing last time.
The small caravan, four vehicles, one of them pulling a trailer, carried a hot meal and warm clothes for people living in tents and other makeshift shelters in various out-of-the-way pockets of downtown Indianapolis. The group of about 10 people, members of various Hancock County churches, makes this trip each week.
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They bring items they hope will help, but the aid goes beyond basic bags of groceries. Their mission isn’t to drop off items and leave; it’s to connect with those who need their help.
“It’s to support them and make them realize someone cares about them,” Horn said from the driver’s seat. “The whole goal is just to do the work of Jesus.”
The group pulled into its first stop of the evening, and people began stepping forward into a parking lot from a wooded riverbank nearby.
There were hugs, expressions of “How you been doin’?” and pats on the back. One man held out his phone so Horn could say “hello” to his wife, who had been there during previous visits but is now in the hospital. Horn has visited her there.
Dean Couch, who drove the truck pulling the trailer, joked with a woman about the calories of a doughnut being all in the hole, and that was cut out, so it’s OK to eat, right?
The woman told the group she had been hauling wood up and down the hill all day. She figured she’d pay for that the next day as she already was feeling sore. But with another cold snap expected in a few days, it had to be done.
“But God is good, all the time,” she told Couch. “Even though I’m here.”
The woman (they know her as Angela) is in charge at this camp. Horn said it appears common for there to be a “boss” at each site who keeps order. During a previous visit from the group, Angela asked for some canned goods so that if someone else on the bank came to her out of food, she would have something to share.
“She’s the mama hen watching out for her area,” said Lisa Perkins, a friend of Horn’s.
The camp members weren’t buying the line about the doughnuts, donated by a shop that gives what hasn’t sold by the end of the day. But they were just the treat at the end of a hearty meal — chicken with fettuccine and green beans, served hot from the back of the trailer.
“The idea is that, if Jesus came to dinner, you wouldn’t give him a bologna sandwich,” Horn said. “You’d give him good food.”
‘It’s just the economy’
The volunteers ladled the meal into divided Styrofoam containers. There were extra boxes of food to carry to others back in their tents and plastic bags to make carrying multiple boxes easier. There was bottled water for now and for later.
In the warmer months, when the daylight lasts later into the evening, the visitors are more likely to see young families, with children in pajamas. But not in January. In the last fragments of daylight, the dozen at this first site — men, women and a teenage boy with his father — stood in small groups, eating and often joking with each other and those serving food.
Robert Knopp was more serious. He’s been there since last April.
“It’s just the economy and not knowing very many people around here,” he said.
Knopp used to live in the Fort Wayne area, where he worked as a machinist. He was laid off in 2009. After that, he came to Indianapolis, where he found work for a while. Along the way, he discovered he has diabetes.
He has a friend who lets him visit to take a shower and do laundry. Knopp dropped off a fresh load in his shelter just before walking to the trailer for the meal.
“They come every Thursday,” he said between bites. “They give us a hot meal and talk to us a little. No complaints.”
After the meal, people gathered at one side of the trailer and by the trunks of the cars. There were blankets, long underwear, jeans, scarves, gloves, hats, coats, hand warmers, even a sleeping bag, and a bag filled with little bottles of shampoo.
The items are collected largely through word of mouth from friends of the group; some of them savvy secondhand shoppers. Sometimes an appeal for a specific item goes out to an email list the group has put together.
At the second stop, a few blocks away, the group had the right coat for Orlando Alfredo. He and Jose Hernandez received blankets and boxes of food from the group. They have worked together in the past, doing roofing or yard work, but Alfredo said there’s not much work right now.
‘Better than nothing’
On the short drive north to the next stop, Horn and Perkins expressed a hope they can catch up with the husband of a couple they have gotten to know; the wife has AIDS and is in a hospital dying.
But the husband was not around, either.
It was quiet at first, except for the rumble of traffic on the interstate overhead. The river shimmered nearby, and you could look up and read “Lucas Oil Stadium” in the distance. The group stepped carefully with flashlights through a scraggly clump of woods, past a burned shelter, past a makeshift outhouse, toward a flat-topped boxy shelter where the couple used to live.
James Lamb lives there now with his twin brother, who’s sick right now, and two other people. There’s a wood-burning stove inside. He showed the visitors firewood that he helped cut stacked outside, thanks to a friend and a pastor in Hendricks County. The men cut five loads, Lamb said, and this was his share.
He came out of the woods to the trailer for food and clothes. He’ll take anything they’ve got.
“Anything’s better than nothing. If I can’t use it, I’ll find somebody who can,” he said. “It’s just basic Camping 101, you know? I don’t tell people I’m homeless. That does not get you a job.”
A small dog followed him. He said he found her three days ago in the outhouse. He coaxed her out with a little food but wishes he’d chosen differently in what he offered because “she tooted like nobody’s business.”
She appeared to have had, and lost, a litter of puppies. She was lactating, and James worried about her. The group took pictures of the dog, hoping to find a new home for her.
“I wish I could keep her,” Lamb said, “but they are high-maintenance creatures.”
Before the group moved on, Horn and Perkins asked Lamb about the couple they’ve gotten to know and tried to find out which hospital the wife was in.
Keeping tabs on people
The group was midway through its stops. The drivers stopped for a short break at a convenience store to use the restroom and buy hot coffee. In the parking lot, some of them were surprised by the chance to catch up with another friend they’ve made in previous visits.
“I’m glad I got to see you,” Gary Johnson told the group. “I’ve missed you.”
Johnson used to be a regular at the group’s first stop, but he has since moved under a different bridge. For a while, the group missed seeing him and his dog, Pretty Girl, who likes to give kisses.
Tomorrow, he said, he would go to The Salvation Army and look for a plus-sized man’s belt to make a leash for Pretty Girl.
The group told Johnson where it would be next week and when. He said he’d be there.
Most of them were there this night. There was a man in a truck waiting in a small parking lot. He talked about the natural beauty of Idaho, where he’s from. There were guys at a park, newer to meeting up with the visitors and receiving instructions on when to come again. They said they live in an empty house.
Also at the park was a man who was tickled to receive that cornbread from Horn.
He’s originally from Chicago but has lived in his car since last March. He goes to a nearby shelter when it’s open and knows the hours when a person can’t get into a warm restaurant without making a purchase.
Before the group left the park, Horn went back to his car with him.
“Here, … let me give you a hug and pray with you,” she said, crouching by the open car door.
A few blocks east of the park, the group walked through a gap in fence rails, over a back lot, to a few tents and a clump of empty chairs at the edge of some trees.
“Is anybody hungry?” they called out.
But no one was there.
Inspired by Scripture
There are about 12 people the group has helped find housing since these weekly visits began two winters ago. When they don’t see a regular, they hope that’s what happened. They have other stories too, though, such as an unresponsive man they discovered in the frigid cold and believe they got to him just in time to help.
So this vacated camp leaves them wondering what happened. Did someone tell the people living there they had to leave?
At the last stop, “The Jungle,” some of those ministered to have a ministry of their own, receiving bikes others discard and fixing them up to be given to others. Some bikes have been given away at Christmastime at the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen in Greenfield.
By this last stop, after more than three hours spent mostly outdoors, it was easy to feel that hurt from the cold. Ladling steaming green beans was one of the few ways to warm your hands on a frigid night. But no one in the group complained.
“I’ll never complain about being cold again,” Couch said, having seen all he has on these nights. “I’ll never complain about being too hot or being hungry or thirsty.”
Before the group headed to the city that night, Couch read to those gathered some words from Jesus in the Bible about being hungry and thirsty. The verse comes from Matthew: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.”
The verse speaks so much to the group’s ministry.
“This is why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Couch said. “This is not about us. When they thank us, it’s thanking God. This is what this is all about.”