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On the streets, champion of the homeless faces uncertain future

For the last 15 years, Pastor Eric T. Johns has spent most of Thanksgiving week living on downtown streets, mostly to connect with homeless people and raise awareness about their plight.

This week, in his 16th year living in shelters and underneath an expressway, Johns has found another reason to empathize with the homeless.

His church, the Buffalo Dream Center, is looking for a roof over its own head. Actually, two roofs, one for the church and the other for the warehouse where the ministry stores its food, clothing, appliances and furniture.

“This year, the Dream Center could be homeless,” Johns said, inside a Delaware Avenue coffee shop. “We, like the homeless, have an uncertainty about what the future holds for us.”

The Dream Center holds its services in the Buffalo Christian Center on Pearl Street and stores its goods at the Larkin Center of Commerce on Exchange Street. But the church must vacate both sites, as the Christian Center has been sold, and the Larkin site is leasing that space to a paying tenant.

While Johns said the owners at both sites have been great about extending the time frame, the Dream Center knows that it needs new locations after Dec. 31.

“In the 20 years I’ve been pastor of the Dream Center, this is the most critical situation that we’ve ever faced,” Johns said. “After Dec. 31, we’re unsure what’s going to happen. We’re definitely not giving up. We are fighting for our existence, but we are putting our trust in God that he has a plan for the Dream Center.”

Johns and his wife, Michelle, sat down and talked about what to do this Christmas season, in light of the looming Dec. 31 deadline. They decided to do what they normally do, providing food and wrapped children’s gifts to about 3,000 families as part of the church’s Boxes of Love campaign.

The church serves a mostly urban population. About 150 to 200 people attend Sunday services, but two-thirds of them are younger than 20, most of them attending without their parents. The church buses in youths from low-income areas, including housing projects. And an estimated 80 percent of the congregants are minorities, including a large crew of immigrants.

This is a group that has no easy place to turn if the Dream Center closes.

“We’re confident that we’re going to find something, but it’s taken us longer than we anticipated,” Johns said.

For 15 years, Johns always has found a new angle for his holiday week on the streets, tweaking the formula for the way he and some of his followers spend their five-day visit.

And so it is this year. Michelle Johns, their three daughters, the pastor’s mother and a few other women took to the streets for 24 hours, from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning.

For years, Michelle Johns has spent her Thanksgiving week mostly behind the scenes, helping coordinate her husband’s efforts. She has always had compassion for the women living that existence and understands the complexities of the issues they face.

“But I’ve never been in that situation, or close to that situation,” she added. “So I hope I’ll be able to understand it a bit better.”

The women’s group – including the couple’s daughters, Victoria, 20; Emilie, 18; and Mikayla, 15 – planned to spend their night at Cornerstone Manor, a shelter for women and children, largely for safety reasons.

Since she was 10, Emilie has joined her father during Thanksgiving week for short periods of time. But never for a full 24 hours.

“Being homeless is one thing, but being homeless as a woman is harder,” she said, citing something as seemingly simple as a bathroom break as an example. “I’m excited to walk in someone’s shoes, to experience that feeling. I want to bring attention to that.”

Her father already has had to change one of his long-term plans. Last November, he announced that his 15th year on the streets probably would be his last, at least in a leadership role. He decided that it was time to “pass the baton” to younger church leaders.

News of his impending “retirement” from his weeklong efforts on the streets prompted a huge outpouring, especially from the homeless, with comments such as “Pastor, I can’t believe you’re not going to do it anymore.”

So the 43-year-old Johns this week headed out for his 16th year, with his usual team, including good friend Keith Cauley, the 60-year-old backgammon wizard, and John Jones, 28. “I guess I realized this week that the time I spend with the homeless means more to them than I thought it did,” Johns said.

For that, Johns is eternally grateful during this season for giving thanks.