REAL ISSUES

Feeding Houston’s Homeless

February 16, 2011

Peggy O’Hare, Houston Chronicle

Houston recovery center finds dual benefit in feeding the homeless

sack-lunch-express

Bobby Joe Thompson, 68 - who was homeless himself in the 1960s - delivers a sack lunch Wednesday to Ella Mae Taylor and other homeless people in Houston as part of the Sack Lunch Express program by the Last Chance Recovery Center.

As soon as homeless people see the small sport utility vehicle, they start running — not away from the car, but toward it. They climb out of sleeping bags, leave their benches outside a soup kitchen, appear from behind abandoned buildings.

The Sack Lunch Express has arrived. Bobby Thompson, 68, and Jimmy Daly, 53, start handing out lunch bags with sandwiches and oranges to the eager people surrounding them. The two are residents at Last Chance Recovery Center, a northwest Houston transitional living facility for men trying to stay sober from alcohol and drugs.

“Hey, how’s it going, man?” Thompson says cheerfully to those he encounters along the 90-minute trek through downtown Houston. “Hey, man, you all right? Let’s put something in your tummy.”

Since the Sack Lunch Express began in mid-December, Last Chance Recovery Center residents have delivered 10,000 sandwiches in 5,000 sack lunches to homeless people for free. Thompson and Daly rise at 3:30 a.m. on Monday through Saturday at the 85-bed living facility at 5130 Milwee St. to make 200 sandwiches for people living on the streets downtown.

It is a mission close to Thompson’s heart since he was once homeless himself for a year in Fort Worth back in the 1960s.

“It’s something that I enjoy doing,” he said of the Sack Lunch Express. “Just to go to feed these people, it’s a blessing.

“When you run out of food and you have a person who comes up and says, ‘Got any more sandwiches?’ and you say, ‘No, we’re out,’ (to) a young lady, that hurts,” Thompson said tearfully. “Because she’s hungry.”

‘We don’t judge’

The nonprofit recovery center’s director, Jim Edinger, who came up with the idea for the Sack Lunch Express, said some people might criticize feeding homeless people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. But he sees things differently.

“We don’t judge people out there – it’s not our job to judge them,” Edinger said. “We just try to do what we can do. There’s a lot that needs to be done. We don’t even scratch the surface of it, really.

“It must be horrible to be out there. I mean, this is just something that if we don’t care about it, there’s something wrong with us, in my mind. Now, I realize it’s not a universal thought,” Edinger chuckles.

The effort also helps recovery center residents stay sober, said general manager Henry “Hank” Thomason, who has lived at the facility for eight years.

“I guess you’d call it a reality check,” Thomason said. “It helps the guys feel good about themselves – like the old saying goes, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ And some of these guys have actually been out there, living under those bridges and homeless. It helps them see where they could wind up again – or if they’ve never been there, where they could wind up.”

After making the sandwiches, which takes about two hours, a supervisor and two residents from the recovery center set out about 9 a.m. and head to their first stop, Loaves & Fishes, a lunch and soup kitchen on Congress near the Pierce Elevated. Homeless people line both sides of Congress, lying in sleeping bags or sitting in makeshift camps. But they quickly swarm the SUV to grab a sandwich bag.

From there, the sandwich deliverymen move on to bus stops beneath the Pierce Elevated, a Citgo gas station at Gray and Hamilton streets, a makeshift homeless camp on Fannin and outside the SEARCH Homeless Services office – all places where the homeless tend to congregate.

The sandwiches are made with fresh bread baked daily and donated by Laurenzo’s restaurant at 4412 Washington. “We don’t put out junk here,” Edinger said. “Those are nice sandwiches.”

Edward Wilson, 50, a native Houstonian who said he has most recently been homeless for about three weeks, depends on the sandwiches because he said he is diabetic and disabled and finds it difficult at some times during the week to get a meal. “It’s healthy food, and there’s a lot of food I can’t eat,” Wilson said. “I count it as a blessing when they come through.”

Upcoming fundraiser

Several of the homeless men who have received sandwiches from the Sack Lunch Express have ended up becoming residents at Last Chance Recovery Center, which has operated for 24 years and charges residents who are employed $95 a week for a bed and small living space. Residents are allowed to stay as long as they feel it is necessary – one man, who managed a Walgreen’s drug store, lived at the facility for 13 years before he died there recently.

The recovery center will hold a barbecue fundraiser on March 13 at Bear Creek Park’s Pavilion 6 to help raise money for the sandwich-delivery effort.

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