Even though the sun is beginning to set, there is still a warm breeze blowing new clouds of pollen across an almost empty parking lot in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. For the moment, it’s just asphalt and a black Ford truck. The truck is old, paint greying from miles past, but still running with a bed full to the brim with everything from gas cans to wood planks.
Stepping out of the truck, a man closes a whining door behind him. He smiles and reaches out a hand. His mustache outlines a smile as he says,
“I hear you’ll be handing out food to the homeless with us. Call me Johnny Floyd and sorry about the truck. It’s a mess, I know.”
In the past six months, Columbia has been the center for a terribly misguided fight against homelessness. In September 2013, city council attempted to criminalize homelessness in order to clean up the downtown area. According to the proposal, those found guilty of homelessness are forced to choose between going to jail or being shipped to a newly built rural shelter, far away from the city. The problem with this shelter? No kitchen. Columbia’s idea for helping the homeless was to help them out of the city. Period.
Fortunately, this was met with such opposition from citizens and law enforcement alike that city council was forced to rescind its unanimous vote. Unfortunately, in February the city passed a law requiring organizations and nonprofits to pay a $120 fee to feed the homeless in public parks.
Despite all the people out there trying to eliminate homelessness, there are also those actually caring for the homeless. It’s people like these who I’m standing with, loading water bottles into a cooler. After using my shirt tail to wipe the sweat from my brow, I shake Reverend Watson’s hand of Main Street United Methodist Church. For the past nine years, Watson and Floyd have run this program, feeding the homeless every Thursday night.
We climbed into a van with coolers full of sandwiches and water. Tonight it’s just going to be the three of us.
“Sometimes there are more of us,” Watson leans back to tell me from the driver’s side.
“Yeah, and sometimes there are less,” Floyd says, looking out the window at a dimming, purple city.
Turning on to Main Street, we pass restaurants and shops producing rich orange light that pours out onto the sidewalk. People are sitting at tables, sipping coffee, chatting. There are others just walking to enjoy the warm spring weather while two students set up a camera for some kind of video shoot. It’s everything you should imagine your capital city’s downtown to look like.
But, after taking just one left, you’ll find bus stops acting as shelter for the night. We stop at one where a bearded man sits waiting for no one.
“Hey buddy, are you hungry? Need a sandwich?” Floyd calls.
The man gets up and takes it, grabbing a water bottle from my hand, backing away and thanking us.
“No problem, we’re from Main Street Methodist!” Floyd calls back. We pull away.
We ride up Bull Street, onto Gervais, down Assembly, and over to Sumter, stopping all along the way to repeat this same ritual. Some thank us and others do not. But every person we hand a sandwich and bottle to gives a heavy, tired smile. Floyd turns back and tells me that the real heroes of this whole thing are the women of the church.
“They come by the church every week and bring the sandwiches for us to hand out. We never have to ask and they never want a thing in return. They do it out of the goodness in their hearts,” he says as he holds a hand up to punctuate this truth.
The sky as dark and city lights begin to pop on all around us – ushers of the night. We pull up for the last time by a bus station and make our introductions. Half of the station is at our windows grabbing bottles and food, thanking us and returning to their seats. None of them climb into the bus that arrives but before we finally leave, just two empty coolers in our possession, one man holds up a sandwich and yells, “God bless you, man.”
Watson and Floyd wave back and drive away. We didn’t solve the plight of homelessness or cure world hunger. But, for a few hours, three guys with a van and two coolers made sure that at least for tonight, downtown will harbor a few less hungry souls.