Photo courtesy of George Hodan
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— On my left, there was an aged red brick building on 900 W Adams Street, home to The Salvation Army – Towers Center of Hope. The street is as busy as a freeway during rush hour.
On the street was an African American woman in striped pajamas squeezing her body in a child’s red wagon. Her eyes were covered with sun glasses, but a toothless smile was given to me and my partner, Ameera, as we walked by.
There’s a short hispanic man walking by with a cart full of clothes and sneakers. He only looks 30. He’s waving, smiling, and laughing at all the cars speeding by to get home. But the people of Jacksonville, Florida did not pay him any mind. It’s like he was invisible.
As I ring the doorbell and wait to be buzzed in I look over to my right and notice the new condominium building with a garage that was just built. I look back at the aged red brick building and inspect it some more. I watch the spider in the top corner of the doorway chill in its web near the paint chipped door.
“All that money that went into building those luxurious homes, and the Salvation Army saw none of that,” I said with frustration.
An old Caucasian man opened the door for us. There were not many wrinkles in his face, he came up to my shoulder and had a little hunch in his back. As we entered the building the bullet proof glass that separated guest from the check in desk stood out to me. The glass was very clean and seemed to sparkle under the bright lights in the lobby.
After checking in at the front desk, the man guided us towards the dining room and explained the way the “feeding times” worked.
“‘Feeding times’,” I questioned in my head. “What is this prison?”
“This is the dining room,” he said. “The first people that eat are the families that live here, next we have the single men and women residents, finally we allow the street people to come in and eat.”
He walked us through the dining room doors where male residents were finishing up their dinner and conversations.
“SLAPPEY,” one of the men yelled. “It’s good tonight!”
Slappey smiled back at the man and proceeded to take us to the kitchen to meet a woman named Ms. Joyce. The middle aged African American woman’s face lit up with a smile when she saw us. What once were manilla colored latex gloves, now were covered in red pasta sauce. Instead of shaking our hands we touched elbows. She covered the ground rules and got us set up with hairnets, aprons and buckets of water with rags.
As six o’clock quickly approached, five pans of food were brought out to the serving line. Pasta, baked chicken, beans, white rice, and cornbread. It all smelled like an African American Thanksgiving meal. The chicken was glistening and juicy, while the cornbread crumbled just right.
“One of you can scoop while the other places the chicken on the plate and places the finished plates up here when they’re ready to serve,” Ms. Joyce said while pointing to the flat metal surface above the serving line in front us. “How’s that sound?”
“Sounds good,” we replied.
“Oh… and remember to have them place their tickets in this jar right here,” Ms. Joy mentioned. “Also try to stay ahead because once those doors open they start rushing in. You don’t want to be behind!”
Scoop, scoop, pick, place. Scoop, scoop, pick, place. Scoop, scoop, pick, place. I quickly got lost in the cycle of putting food on the plates because, sure enough, just as Ms. Joyce had said when the doors opened they came rushing in all at once.
I looked at Ameera and we smiled at each other working hard to get ahead of the stampede of hungry people.
“This must be what the cafeteria workers at JU feel like during the day,” I thought.
“Good evening ladies,” the man said.
“Good evening, how are you,” I replied back.
“I’m blessed and highly favored,” he replied back with a smile.
Something inside me instantly felt warm. I could feel my heart start racing fast. Just at the thought that earlier today I was in a bad mood because the cafe didn’t have anything good to eat. But in walks a man, who appears to have not bathed in a while, telling me that despite all that he’s going through, he is still in high spirits. A piece of me was genuinely happy for him.
Scoop, scoop, pick, place.
“Here’s some more chicken,” Ameera said.
Scoop, scoop, pick, place.
“How’s it going back here ladies,” Ms. Joyce asked.
“So far so good,” I replied.
The wave of people seemed to never die down. Just when you thought it was over, seven more people showed up.
“Good evening sir, how are you?” I asked.
An average height man with a stained white long sleeve shirt, dark blue jeans, muddy black boots, and a dark brown hat that read ‘I love God’ approached the serving line. He had a big smile on his dark brown face, like a kid on Christmas morning. He was itching to tell us something.
“Hello, I’m doing great!” he smiled. “I just got approved for the affordable housing program. I’ve waited for two years for this!”
A piece of me wanted to run out from behind the counter and embrace him. Let him know how proud I am of him. How this is the first step in the right direction and it does get better from here. But unfortunately that was not a possible scenario since I had been warned earlier not to get attached to the people.
“Amen to that,” I replied. “I’m so happy for you!”
Scoop, scoop, pick, place.
“Anyone who wants seconds can come and get it,” Ms. Joyce screamed to the cafeteria.
Like a choir following their director to stand. The hungry people stood and as one, came rushing over to us.
As the minutes went by the food dwindled down and the people filed out. The phrase “thank you” filled the room along with different types of smiles.
Finally when the food was gone and the dining room was cleaned it was time to leave.
“How’d it go,” Slappey asked.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had,” I said back.
Homeless people are often ignored in our society. Ignored to the point that they become invisible. We can walk past them on the street and ignore their cry for help. We can drive past them when they’re on the sidewalk laid out, possibly sleep or hurt. But for one hour everyday, the homeless go from being invisible to visible.