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BACK ON THE STREETS
8-YEAR-OLD TAGS ALONG FOR PASTOR FATHER'S MISSION

Victoria Johns is only 8 years old, but she already has experienced enough of the traditional Thanksgiving celebration to seek out a twist.

So instead of supper with extended family at Grandma's this year, Victoria decided to join her father, the Rev. Eric Johns, for a taste of life as a homeless person -- including a turkey-with-trimmings meal in the soup kitchen of Durham Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on East Eagle Street.

Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, has become well-known in Buffalo for his annual trek to the city streets, where he spends five days and nights living with the homeless.

Johns started his homeless pilgrimage in 1999 to draw attention during the holidays to people who are less fortunate and to inspire donations of food and toys for area families.

This year, Victoria wanted to learn more about what her father was doing -- and lend a hand.

"Because I want to help kids get presents for Christmas," is how she explained it, between bites of turkey and mashed potatoes.

Later, she added, "I think people should help other people find homes."

Keith Cauley, who attends Johns' church and helps the pastor navigate the streets, remembers when Victoria approached him last year about participating.

"She said, 'Mr. Keith, can I ask you a question?' She says, 'I want to go on the streets next year with my father,' " Cauley said. "All year long I've been trying to talk her out of it."

Victoria persisted, so her parents agreed to let her spend some of Monday and Thursday with her father.

"We planned when there was a safe time and appropriate time to come. And there were four guys watching after her," said Michelle Johns, Victoria's mother.

The group included Tony Spector, the pastor's stepfather.

Spector spent a night with Johns last year and will spend three nights living homeless this year.

"A lot of times people will have something to say about situations and other people, and they don't know what they're talking about because they've never done it before," said Spector, a control operator at a power plant. "A lot of people look at the homeless and the poor as moochers off the system. They don't understand there's people in need out there."

Wednesday night, Johns and Spector slept outside, under a Kensington Expressway overpass. They woke at 5 a.m., then had a breakfast of cereal and hard-boiled eggs in the City Mission.

Johns admits that he "cheats" a little in his homelessness by storing his sleeping bag, blankets and other belongings in a room at the Buffalo Christian Center, to which he has a key.

Most street homeless, he said, stash their stuff in places that are sometimes perilous to reach.

After walking around the city much of the morning, Johns, Cauley, Spector and Victoria showed up at the soup kitchen at about 11:30 a.m. for the hot turkey dinner.

Throughout the week, Johns said he has noticed more families coming for meals than in previous years. At one stop, he found a mother, a father and their five children, who all attend services at his church. The oldest child told him they ate at that soup kitchen nightly, he said.

After finishing their Thanksgiving meals, Johns and company hit the streets again. They walked to the Hotel Chippewa, a boarding house on Chippewa Street, where Michelle Johns and church volunteers showed up with 25 turkey dinners for the residents of the building.

From there, Victoria rejoined her mother and two younger sisters. Johns and Spector still had plenty of time left on the streets.

Last year, Johns brought along a counter to measure how much he had walked in a day. He averaged 10 to 12 miles, shuffling among shelters and soup kitchens.

The walking, he said, isn't as bad as the constant fatigue -- brought on by the inability to sleep comfortably -- or the struggle to stay busy.

"The thing that will drive you the craziest about being homeless is, 'How do I waste my time?' " Johns said.

Cauley taught him how to play backgammon. One of Johns' goals Thursday was simply to get a shower.

His stint as a homeless man will end Saturday, and by then he hopes to have raised enough interest to fund food and toys for 2,002 families for Christmas 2002.

Donations can be dropped off at the Buffalo Christian Center, 512 Pearl St., or can be made by calling 854-4833.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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