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Feeding homeless one Saturday at a time

Volunteers say they are humbled by work

By Jeanni Brosius

This article was published September 22, 2011 at 3:50 a.m.

— It was a chilly, rainy Saturday morning as more than 120 people began their weekly journey to a spot underneath the Broadway Street Bridge in downtown Little Rock.

At the same time, a group at Fishnet Missions in Jacksonville prepared 5 gallons of scrambled eggs and 200 biscuits, along with grits, gravy and sausage. Another group of volunteers from the mission began loading up the cooked food to take to the location under the bridge where the food line had already started to form, with people who carry all of their possessions in small bags or backpacks.

Dewey Sims, founder of Fishnet Missions, began feeding the homeless under the bridge more than 15 years ago, and his group of volunteers hasn’t missed a Saturday since.

Sims said he was volunteering at a food pantry at his church when he went to North Little Rock near the Riverwalk, where a bridge offers shelter to those who have nowhere else to go. He said he believes he was led to that area for a reason, and he’s been making sure that the homeless underneath the bridge have been fed each Saturday since.

“I expect we’ll have about 120 today. We usuallysee 70 to 130 people, and we have had up around 150. In the cooler months, we have more,” said Kelly Stevens of Jacksonville, who has volunteered at Fishnet Missions for six years.

Dumping a steaming batch of scrambled eggs into an ice chest, Robert Durham and his wife, Amy, volunteer at Fishnet Missions to cook breakfast every fourth or fifth Saturday, along with Greg and Brenda Powell. Both couples attend McArthur Church in Jacksonville and have volunteered at the mission for about two years.

“All of the food is donated, so you never know what you’re going to get,” Amy said.

“Yeah, you just play the hand you’re dealt,” Robert said.

After loading up the food into Stevens’ truck, the group traveled together from Jacksonville to downtown Little Rock. The group set up folding tables and placed large pots of gravy, grits and other food items on them. Popping latex gloves over their hands, the servers begin doling out the food.

After Ricky Smiley and Edward Davis had gone through the food line, Smiley offered Davis some of his breakfast.

“I’m not a bum, and I go to church,” said Smiley, who has been homeless a little more than two weeks.

Smiley was once a painting contractor until he was on a job in El Dorado in 1997 and fell 35 feet.

“I’ve got a crushed lumbar spine, a fused ankle and arthritis,” he said.

That isn’t what forced Smiley to become homeless, but it did contribute to his lower income. He said his car broke down, and the police gave him four days to get it moved from its location. Moving the car and then the repairs would total more than his monthly income, so he said he gave up his apartment and began living on the streets to save money to pay his mechanic bill.

Opening up his wallet to seemingly prove that he isn’t “a bum,” Smiley pulled out his Medicare card and a card stating that he is an ordained minister.

“I ain’t had a raise in my disability check in three years,” he said, “but the utilities and rent keep going up. All I’d like is to have my car fixed so I can get a job.”

Trying to go to job interviews without transportation has been difficult for Smiley.

“You’ve got to leave The Salvation Army at 7, and thereare a lot of people who live on the street that don’t want help,” Smiley said as the rain began to pour through sections of the bridge. “It’s raining, and we have nowhere to go. Most of us don’t have the proper clothes, and we get wet. We get under any shed we can find until the police run us off. A weaker person would rob somebody to get a hotel room.”

It can get rough out on the streets.

“You have a lot of personalities out here,” said Davis, 51, who has been homeless on and off for about 15 years. “Some stick together, and some don’t stick together.”

Davis said he volunteers at River City Mission during the day when he can, and at night, he seeks refuge at a shelter or the bus station.

Smiley, finishing his sausage and eggs, added that he believes everyone out on the streets has a hidden agenda.

“If you’ve got a cigarette,they’re going to smoke yours and hide theirs,” he said. “But in the shelters, it’s more like a family; out here, it’s a different world. As soon as I get my place, I’m going to help somebody else.” Shane Staton, youth pastor at First United Methodist Church in Cabot, brings about 19 kids to help with the food line every few weeks.

“I had no idea there were somany people who don’t have homes,” said Anthony Mato, a seventh-grader at Cabot Junior High School North.

It was Anthony’s first time to volunteer, and he said it won’t be his last.

“I met a stockbroker here one time,” Staton said. “He told me, ‘Who would have known that two weeks ago, I had a job, and now I’m in a food line?’”

Staton said that the stockbroker he met that day had nice clothes, but it was obvious he had slept in them.

“Many people are just a paycheck away from being out here,”Staton said, glancing around at the group of homeless people gathered under the bridge.

“It makes me grateful, and it humbles me,” said De’Andra Simmons of Little Rock Air Force Base, who also volunteered for the first time to bring food under the bridge.

For more information on Fishnet Missions or to volunteer or donate, visit fishnetmissions. org or call (501) 241-1211.

Staff writer Jeanni Brosius can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or jbrosius@arkansasonline.com.

Three Rivers, Pages 47 on 09/22/2011

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