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Striving to connect with the homeless

The Rev. Eric Johns has no illusions about his six-day immersion into the local world of the homeless each Thanksgiving week.

Each night on the streets, whether he’s crawling into a sleeping bag under the Kensington Expressway overpass on Michigan Avenue or sleeping at a local shelter, Johns sends a text message to his wife, Michelle.

He also has access to a laptop for part of his extended visit that started last Monday and ends today.

He’s armed with his own toiletries and a stash of Hall’s cough drops, to fight off the nasal drip from the nights spent outside. And, most importantly, he knows that after almost a week on the streets, he’s returning to the comforts of home.

“It’s these little things that keep me sane,” Johns said Friday morning, at Spot Coffee, on Delaware Avenue at Chippewa Street.

In short, even out on the streets, Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, remains connected – a key element lacking in many homeless people’s lives.

Johns – along with his traveling road show of other ministers, volunteers and former homeless people – has several goals for what has become a 14-year Thanksgiving week tradition.

He wants to raise the public’s consciousness about homeless people. He wants to help raise money for his center’s Boxes of Love campaign, which provides food and toys to roughly 3,000 needy families each Christmas. And he wants to forge some bond with the street people.

“I feel more like I’m a visitor to the homeless community for a week,” Johns said. “My goal is to make some kind of connection to the people on the street and be someone who can listen to them, just giving encouragement or a hug to someone. It’s not any more complicated than that.”

Johns’ main street partner for the week, the Rev. Patrick Fleming, pastor of Amherst Church of the Nazarene, described their view another way.

“I think it’s a snapshot of the homeless community,” Fleming said. “We see what’s there on the surface. Once in a while, we can see some of the details. But there are so many hidden issues still to be discovered.”

While Johns, Fleming and their regular companions this week – Ben Tagg, Keith Cauley and Gary Bendlin – have been on the streets before, they see something new every year. And they’ve found plenty of images that will stay in their minds for weeks or months to come:

• Their first night, some of the crew saw a fight at the City Mission, apparently over a stolen bus pass.

• They saw a man, near the NFTA bus station, having an animated discussion with his finger.

• At the Durham Memorial AME Zion Church soup kitchen, they talked with a cultured middle-aged man from Moldova who could have been a college professor.

The saddest moment may have come at the Friends of Night People, where Johns and Fleming spotted a young woman, about 19 or 20, unfocused and anxious, connecting with no one.

“Both of us have daughters that age,” Johns said. “Both of us walked out of the soup kitchen with our hearts broken.”

Over the years, Johns has learned to challenge the common stereotype of a homeless person. That stereotype, that mental picture, is of a middle-aged or older man, pushing a shopping cart or living in a box.

But Johns, Fleming and the others talked with several young people, in their late teens and 20s, and many families, including both parents and their kids.

“They may not be homeless, but times are tough, and some of these families eat three or four times a week in the soup kitchens,” Johns said.

Johns carries one main theme from his many encounters with the street people.

“When I talk one-on-one with people, I realize the hopelessness that they have, living from day to day,” he said. “A lot of them have just given up. It’s depressing.”

In each of those conversations, Fleming sees the value of the individual person.

“But you see what a waste it is,” he added. “The value of that person is being spent on their next meal, instead of investing in themselves and in the community.

“They work hard at living, instead of working hard at making a living.”