Hunger and housing tour : Parishioners broaden awareness of community’s need

Barb Arland-Fye
Waunita Sullivan, executive director of Café on Vine in Davenport, talks about the café’s operations, which include a garden ministry to provide fresh produce for the cafe’s hungry guests. Sullivan gave a tour of the café to a group hosted by St. John Vianney Parish-Bettendorf’s Social Action Commission. The group visited four sites during its hunger and housing tour Aug. 28.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Nine visitors stood outside McAnthony Window at St. Anthony Parish one morning in late August to observe this ministry of presence to the hungry and homeless. They listened as John Cooper, St. Anthony’s pastoral associate and business manager, described the ministry and chatted with guests and the volunteers who serve them.

McAnthony Window guests have become like family, Cooper told the group from St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, making their first stop on a hunger and housing tour with the parish’s Social Action Commission. They also visited Café on Vine, Humility Homes & Services shelter, and the River Bend Foodbank.
Tour motivation

“I think this was the fourth time we’ve done this tour,” said Judy Benevento of St. John Vian­­ney’s So­cial Action Com­­mission. “We chose these four places for a number of reasons, including their proximity to each other and their primary missions to fill those basic needs of hunger and shelter. St. Anthony’s provides food, a community atmosphere and other basic necessities. Café on Vine fills that direct need for food twice a day. The Humility Homes & Services shelter helps with the immediate/short term need for shelter but also works on longer-term needs of providing social services, finding housing, etc. Finally, River Bend Foodbank works on the bigger systemic problem of hunger in our communities.”

McAnthony Window ministry

The St. John Vianney group visited with volunteers Teresa Crossen and Kathy Lundberg of St. Anthony Parish, who greet McAnthony Window guests like friends. “Sometimes, we give them hugs,” Lundberg said. “We respect them and they respect us,” Crossen added.

McAnthony Window serves around 1,500 meals a month, providing sustenance to people who are homeless or otherwise in need. The window is open 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, Cooper said.

He also updated the St. John Vianney group about the bicycle program, a collaborative effort between St. Anthony and St. John Vianney parishes to collect and repair bicycles to be distributed to McAnthony Window guests. “Thirty-three people signed up for the first two bikes,” Cooper recalled. “That said to me, ‘bike transportation is really important.’” More than 70 bicycles have been distributed so far to people in need and bike locks, too. Another 30 people are on the waiting list.

Cooper took the visitors to the upper level of the maintenance building. Two volunteers were sorting clothes in what has become an outfitting center to provide clothes, shoes, sleeping bags and toiletries to people in need. “Once you start helping people,” Cooper said, “people come to you.” He worried that the growing demand for services to people in need might interfere with his other responsibilities, but he has found a way to connect those responsibilities.

“Do you need volunteers?” one of the visitors asked. “You can never have enough people to listen to other people in need,” Cooper responded.

Café on Vine

The St. John Vianney group arrived before lunch at Café on Vine where some volunteers sat outside at a picnic bench peeling kernels from corn cobs with knives. “We’ve just gotten enough vegetables to process,” explained the café’s executive director, Waunita Sullivan. “We call it our garden ministry.”

Inside, the kitchen crew prepared the noon meal. Sullivan told the visitors that the café serves an average of 135 people for lunch and 65 for breakfast Monday through Saturday. The café also serves dinner on Sunday evenings.

With Zion Lutheran Church in Davenport serving dinner Monday through Friday to people in need, the only missing meal is Saturday evening. “That’s the hole right now,” said Sullivan, wearing a black apron that read: “Café on Vine – Building Community One Meal at a Time.”

The visitors asked Sullivan questions related to serving meals. “Anyone who walks through this door gets fed,” she said. The café relies on donations largely from individuals and organizations.

“Many of our guests have mental challenges or handicapped challenges. We’re seeing a younger population, around 18 to 28 years old. That kind of saddens me,” Sullivan said. “Our guests are really thankful that we are here.… If you treat anyone with respect, they’ll respect you, too.”

Humility shelter

Michelle Plasschaert, shelter supervisor for Humility Homes & Services, led the St. John Vianney group on a tour of the shelter, located a couple of blocks away from the café. “We keep about 70 people off the street each night,” she said. The average stay, she said, is around 40 days. The shelter works with guests to access resources in the community to get them back on their feet. “We meet people where they are,” Plasschaert said.

Humility Homes & Services owns 18 properties in Davenport, including 41 apartments, the emergency shelter and the “Fresh Start Center” that provides participants with the necessities they need to create new homes and build their futures. The agency leases an additional 52 apartments. On any given day, 250 to 300 adults and children participate in Humility Homes & Services housing programs and services.

Outreach teams (staff and community partners) visit parking lots, stairwells, abandoned buildings and encampments to reach out to persons living on the streets, providing emergency supplies and referrals to appropriate services.

The emergency shelter does not house families. “There is a need for a family shelter,” Plasschaert said. “HUD funding is really leaning toward the housing first philosophy and focusing on permanent, supportive housing. That means we are housing people who are chronically homeless and working with them on other barriers, whether that’s mental health or physical health or employment,” she said.

Because of space limitations, participants may bring into the shelter just enough items to store in the plastic tote assigned to them. That fact saddened Benevento. “People having to give up some of the very few possessions that they have, and though understandable, seems so frustrating,” she said.

Riverbend Food Bank

Inside a 60,000-square-foot warehouse in southwest Davenport, forklift operators moved pallets of food through corridors lined with storage shelves. Jenny Brinkmeyer, donor relations officer, stood near the entryway inside the warehouse, beginning the tour with facts about hunger in the 23-county Quad-City region. One in five children in the service area are missing meals, while one in eight people (children and adults) are missing meals.

Riverbend Food Bank calculated the need for meals per year at 21 million. The agency has worked to close the meal gap, reaching 17.1 million meals distributed in 2018, Brinkmeyer said. The agency aims to close the gap by 2025.

The foodbank works with 300 agency partners who order items online and pick them up at the warehouse. They can also shop for miscellaneous donated items onsite. “Ninety-six percent of what is donated (food and funds) goes right back into the program,” Brinkmeyer said.

She discussed misconceptions people have about expiration dates on packaged food items and how Riverbend works to ensure that the food does not go to waste. “If we stopped throwing away food that we think is bad we could solve the hunger problem,” she told the visitors.

Once the meal gap is reached, River Bend Foodbank will focus on how to shorten the meal gap for people waiting in line and ways to collaborate with community partners in that effort. This year, the foodbank opened two new food pantries, one at NorthPark Mall in Davenport and SouthPark Mall in Moline, Ill.

She also talked about volunteer opportunities to package food items for the student backpack program. Potential volunteers may visit the website: riverbendfoodbank.org.
The takeaway

Benevento said the in-person tours allowed participants to see where each service provider is located, meet with some of the staff and see what they do. Hopefully, that lowers any perceived barriers and “encourages our members to either donate and/or volunteer with these organizations.”

Among the takeaways was the realization that although there is great need in the community, “the staff and organizations are working really hard to address the problems, and they’re not doing it in isolation,” Benevento said. “They’re collaborating with each other.”

St. John Vianney already does a lot to support these organizations and will continue to look for opportunities to do more, she said. “Hopefully, as we address these issues more in the parish, it will encourage people to contact their elected officials to be a voice on hunger and housing issues.”

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