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His week on the streets For 9th year, pastor lives among city's homeless to draw attention to their plight

The Rev. Eric Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, has a glaring passion that brings him to live with Buffalo's homeless for one week every year.

"I believe if you have a passion in life, people will know what it is," the diminutive, bespectacled preacher Wednesday said, as he handed out socks to about 40 homeless men and women underneath the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library skywalk on Ellicott Street.

"If people don't know what your passion is, you probably don't have one," Johns added. "Anybody that has ever met me knows that I'm passionate about people that are in need."

And it's that passion for people in need that, for nine straight years, has led Johns to take on his one-week odyssey of living with Buffalo's homeless on the streets where they dwell and in the elements they endure -- all in an effort to bring awareness to their plight. It also gives him direct insight into who these men and women are and their rather humble needs.

"A lot of people on the street, there's been one thing in their lives that has been devastating: a divorce, surviving a war after being in the military, a bad relationship, drug addiction -- something that happened in their life that shifted the way their life played out. That's the common thing with everyone," Johns said.

The stories of a few of those waiting in line Wednesday for the socks Johns was handing out, as well as the blankets and food that were being distributed from a Winnebago operated by Hearts for the Homeless, confirms Johns' observation.

Mike, a 47-year-old unemployed machinist from Hamburg, said he periodically finds himself on the streets of Buffalo when he and his wife aren't getting along. However, the past six months is the longest period he's ever spent on the streets, he said. "If I was home right now, I'd probably be in jail," Mike said, matter-of-factly. "So, I'm a little more street-wise so I choose to come out here."

"I'm from Hamburg, but downtown [in Buffalo], I come down and eat in the soup kitchens. You know, people like me can get a lot more help here than they can out in the suburbs," Mike added.

Jimmy, 58, has lived in Buffalo all his life and worked most of the time, but now he receives Supplemental Security Income benefits that don't always leave him enough money to afford the essentials. Though he's lived on the streets before, Jimmy said he's fortunate to be staying at a rooming house for shelter these days.

Kasi, 52, has perhaps the most unusual story. He arrived in Buffalo four years ago from Sri Lanka after surviving the catastrophic tsunami that wiped out members of his family and his livelihood. Kasi was working as a cook in a local Indian restaurant while living with a friend until his fortunes changed. The friend returned to Sri Lanka and Kasi suffered an accident that left him unable to work.

A former math teacher in his native country, Kasi Wednesday was reduced to asking Johns for an extra blanket for protection against chilly rain. Johns promised to bring him one after Kasi told the pastor the exact doorway near a parking lot he planned to be sleeping in Wednesday night.

During their weeklong experience, Johns and Rev. Patrick Fleming of the Amherst Church of the Nazarene sometimes sleep inside the concrete supports of the steel beams under the Kensington Expressway overpass spanning Michigan Avenue. They call it their "six-room outdoor flat," which on cold nights provides a degree of protection from the elements.

They spend their days visiting soup kitchens and talking to the homeless.

"Mentally, I can survive the week, because I know I go home on Saturday. But there are people out here who don't know when they'll ever be in a home or if things will get better," Johns said.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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