Just when they thought no one would appear from the Silver Creek trail head at First Avenue and Fourth Street for free coffee and other essentials, a man named Allen was spotted peddling his rusty red bicycle toward the Davies Farm Bus Monday morning.
“He always comes to get his coffee,” HOPE Alliance founder Devon Smyth said a few minutes before 8 a.m. of the man they knew very little about.
Allen, 57, turned down the free T-shirts and underwear a community member donated to HOPE, as well as laundry supplies and “comfort kits” full of hygiene items offered by Smyth and Elevation House Executive Director Carrie Edge.
“You can give that stuff to someone who needs it more than I do,” said Allen, who lives in a tent about 500 yards from where the bus was parked. “I’m doing all right.”
HOPE — Homeless Outreach and Partner Engagement — is a group formed in early August with a dozen local agencies to connect with the homeless and gain their trust in order to serve them better, Smyth explained. Staff from Davies Shelters, LivingProof Recovery, Elevation House and Community Kitchen have for the past three Mondays parked the bus next to the newspaper warehouse off First Avenue near the Salvation Army before heading over to Community Kitchen to park there for about an hour.
Allen, originally from Atlanta, said he’d been working as a porter at a local Burger King in an effort to move out of his tent when about a year ago he was taken down by a heart attack.
“I did a stupid thing and let my blood pressure pills run out,” he said as he sipped on his hot black coffee. “The top part of my aorta completely blew out. They had to put two stints in and it took awhile to recover. My doctor told me I shouldn’t be working, so that’s making it harder to get back on my feet.”
Allen said he was later told he’d been in a coma for 10 days, but he’s still trying to figure out where he was when the heart attack occurred.
“If I’d been in my tent, there’s no way anyone would have found me because it’s not easy to find and even harder to get to,” he said, explaining he intentionally positioned the tent on a hill to prevent anyone from messing with his things.
Now faced with about $80K worth of medical bills he doubts he’ll ever be able to pay, Allen said he’s hoping he’ll be able to collect Social Security and go on Disability soon so he can try to get into the low-cost Greystone Apartments on East Second Avenue.
He said he has a friend who is blind who was able to get an apartment there for only $800 down and $400 per month.
“I hate living in the woods,” said Allen, who does get some financial assistance from his sister on occasion. “I’m tired of fighting off the critters and worrying about somebody stealing my stuff.”
The alarm on his small black flip phone kept going off to remind him to get over to the showers at the Community Kitchen. He said if you don’t get there early, the line gets too long and there might not be any hot water left.
He waved to Smyth and Edge as they, too, pack up to take their roadshow to the Kitchen’s parking lot.
They had no sooner pulled up next to the red brick building housing the showers when they were immediately greeted by half a dozen folks needing coffee and other essentials.
Word spread fast about the six extra-large T-shirts and four packages of men’s underwear. Within the first 15 minutes, the new clothes were gone.
Madonna Gary stopped by the bus with her cousin to get some coffee and laundry soap. She said she lived in her 2001 Mitsubishi sedan for five months after leaving an abusive relationship but has since found a place to live.
“I went through hell for awhile, but now I just need to get my mouth fixed, get my teeth in order,” Gary said, adding she had a nervous breakdown at one point. “I’m also having some other medical concerns I need to see about. But these people are such a blessing.”
Smyth acknowledged that other than the coffee, the T-shirts and underwear were the hottest items. She and Edge began brainstorming ways they could include clothing hand-outs during future Monday mornings HOPE Alliance was out and about.
Suddenly Edge had an “Ah-Ha” moment.
“What if we did something crazy like ask people to donate mismatched socks? As a mother of five, I must have a million of those,” Edge said with a laugh. “My kids are always wearing socks that don’t match. It’s like the style now.”
It was exactly that sort of creativity that makes collaborating with other agencies so vital, Smyth was reminded as a 20-year-old mother of a 1-year-old daughter stopped by the bus for coffee.
Smyth said that young mother, who would only give her first name of Abigail, was lucky to have scored one of the four rooms set aside for homeless women with children at the Ruth & Naomi House just a few blocks from the Community Kitchen.
Abigail said she only arrived on Friday from Washington State after trying first to find a shelter in Tennessee and Alabama. She said she’s since already applied to McDonald’s and cashiering positions and hopes to find a job soon so she can get back on her feet.
She said she appreciates the work of HOPE Alliance and other groups that have taken her under their wings.
“I like Rome,” said said as she and another young Ruth & Naomi resident headed toward the Community Kitchen for lunch.