Homeless find food, resources at ‘Feed the Need’ event

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

Not long after the window on the Salvation Army’s food truck opened, Patrice Cohen and her three children were in line.

They are homeless residents of the HOPE Community Shelter. Some came from the Kearney Center and others came out of the woods or the cars that they sleep in.

The chicken dinner they received was their meal for the night. For the first time in awhile Cohen and her children knew what they would be eating before going to bed.

The Salvation Army’s food truck was busy all evening during a Feed the Need event.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

“We have to struggle and go out to get some food,” said Cohen, whose children are ages 2, 3 and 4.

On the evening that they showed up, the Salvation Army was one of several resource agencies that provides for those in need. While not all of the agencies showed up at Messer Park, a co-op of nine was formed for the first time this year. 

It’s an extension of the Salvation Army’s Feed the Need program. Bringing all of the resource agencies together is an idea that Julie Smith, Social Services Program Coordinator, hopes will make them more accessible to the homeless.

Staging the event also doubles as training to prepare a volunteer pool for feeding many during a disaster, Smith said. 

About 200 people showed up last week to be fed or receive clothing and blankets. They also filled out forms to get into a data base for services.

“People are really enjoy getting to understanding us and what we do and having the meal,” said Smith. “We are learning more about where the people are and what they need. It’s helping everybody.”

Salvation Army volunteer Courtney Cummings (right) assists Patrice Cohen with her paperwork during a recent Feed the Need event at Messer Park.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

There are lots of people who need help, too. Leon County was one of the top 12 food insecure counties in the state of Florida, according to a 2017 study. It found that more than 19 percent of adults and children are food insecure.

The idea to bring the services together was born out of a conversation that Smith had with Patricia Smith, owner of Pat’s Pantry. They first met while attending a homeless event in Gadsden County.

Pat’s Pantry is a ministry that Smith said she had been undertaking for the last 10 years. She collects blankets and jackets and takes them wherever the homeless might be living – specifically those who live in the outdoors.

The other agencies that joined the co-op are Big Bend Continuum of Care, Big Bend Homeless Coalition,  Bond Community Health Center, Capital City Youth Services, Emergency Care Help Organization,  Neighborhood Medical Center and Second Harvest of the Big Bend.

All of the agencies will meet once each month at a location central to where people have needs, said Julie Smith.

Going Places Outreach, a division of Capital Youth Services, was one of the first providers to run low on clothes. Their representatives used the time to promote their services – including hot meals and showers — for young people between ages 11 and 21.

They’ve seen an uptick in need for services that they provide at a location on Dent Street in Frenchtown, said Lucas Gauna, a housing specialist for Going Places Outreach.

“With the weather getting cooler, a lot of people are needing sleeping bags because a lot of people are camping out in the woods,” said Gauna. “People who are experiencing homelessness and don’t want to go to the shelter stay on the streets or go in the woods so it’s extremely important for them to come in and grab warm clothing; jackets and that kind of stuff.”

Homelessness is far-reaching, said Gauna. However, Smith said it wasn’t until she began her outreach that she realized the magnitude.

“People who are living outdoors (are) put in a different category,” she said. “They say ‘oh look at the bums or something like that.’ But God is so good. He lets me meet them on the side of the road, then as you get to know them, they will show you where they live in the woods.”

Billy Smith, no relation to the two ladies who aren’t related themselves, is one of the people who Patricia Smith has helped.

Living in the woods isn’t easy but it’s  where he finds solitude, Smith said.

“It’s a little place that I go and get me a couple hours of sleep and then get up early in the mornings,” he said without divulging the location.

On  rainy days or nights, he uses two huge umbrellas to stay dry. He has blankets for cold nights.

He said he feels a change coming in for the better but for now he has to endure.

“Being homeless means you’ve made a mistake in life and you find yourself in a position like I have,” he said, adding, “I’m in a state of mind right now that I want to move up.”