A Feast for Homeless People: If you barbecue, will they come?

There’s nothing that’ll inspire a dog to break his verbal leash like the smell of meat on a barbecue.

“Tawny! Come! COME!” I yelled. It was futile. My dog flew from the trail we were walking. He dashed a hundred or so yards across the park toward fragrant smoke arising from a barbecue grill. I chased after him, mentally rehearsing the profound apologies I would utter to the guy at the grill. By the time I got there, the chef was ready for me, waving a hotdog on the end of his fork. 

“Is it okay to give it to him?” he asked eagerly. 

“Only a small part,” I answered. “He has a delicate digestive system.”

The barbecuer, clean-cut, middle-aged, was by now petting and scratching Tawny as I surveyed the picnic area: two tables covered with all the right stuff from pickles to potato chips, but no one else around. The grill was loaded with hotdogs, chicken, ribs. A package of hamburger waited its turn. I wondered if he was preparing the feast for the high school baseball team practicing at the far end of the park.

“Who’re you cooking for?” I asked.

“Homeless people,” he said, looking me directly in the eye as he offered a paper plate with a chicken thigh, drenched in barbecue sauce.

I declined the plate but said, “My name’s Mary,” as I sat down at one of the tables. I needed to learn more. “Brandon,” he responded. 

“We have something in common,” I tried as a conversation starter. “I cook for the homeless shelter in Okanogan a couple times a week when it’s open in winter.” He was neither interested nor impressed. 

Our conversation took off in other directions, mostly odd and circuitous. At one point Brandon insisted we switch places because the barbecue smoke was blowing in my face. Ultimately I learned that he’d been released from jail that morning. He’d spent a couple hundred bucks on the picnic fare. I saw no vehicle nearby and wondered how he carted all that food — plus charcoal briquets — from the grocery store, a half-mile away on the other side of the river.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Wherever I am.” Okayyyyy.

“How are homeless people going to know you have all this food for them?”

“It worked last year.”

By this time Brandon was indeed getting worried that people weren’t showing up. I accepted the chicken thigh.

“Got any napkins?” as I licked my sauce-covered fingers. That’s the one item Brandon hadn’t thought of. He raced off to the porta potties around the corner in search of paper towels, but came back empty-handed. I wiped my fingers on the back of the paper plate, which he then took from me and neatly tossed into the garbage can. He started filling a grocery bag with a jar of pickles, an orange, the package of hamburger meat — a doggy bag, so to speak, for me to take home. I demurred; he pleaded.

“I don’t want to waste this!” he said, waving his arm at the cornucopia of food.

“Look. You can take all the stuff you haven’t opened yet to the food bank — the pickles, the potato chips, the can of cashew nuts …”

“Naw. I’ve been drinking. I don’t drink and drive,” he said solemnly. I hadn’t smelled alcohol (who could with all the barbecue aroma?) but noted a case of beer on the other table.

“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” He shrugged in a way that said it wasn’t an issue.

As I stood to leave, we compromised. I accepted an orange and a rib for Tawny — to eat later. In a sense, I brought Brandon home with me, too. He was on my mind all that evening. I remembered the many times I’ve witnessed how kind and generous people who are homeless can be with each other. I’m not suggesting that privation leads to saintliness. Yet there’s that basic human need for community, for connection. We meet that need by sharing. 

The next day I checked the picnic area. It was cleaned up. No sign of Brandon or his feast — other than one dried-up chicken thigh forgotten on the barbecue. Wherever Brandon is, I guess he’s home.

Homelessness Is Not Hopelessness

“Mac died, y’know.”

No, I hadn’t known. Will and I were chatting in the newly constructed main room of the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelter. Will probably has an official title. I just know him as the driving energy and organizer of the all-volunteer, local effort to help homeless people.

Mac had been a regular guest during annual shelter operations from November through March, the cold months. He’d be waiting at six p.m., when the shelter opens, when I’d arrive once or twice a week with a hot casserole for the evening meal. He was eager to carry the casserole inside, eager to tell me about his efforts to find a job, eager to show me his wife’s photo — cracked and creased inside his otherwise empty wallet.

Mac taught me a profound lesson. The shelter strictly requires guests to be clean (of drugs) and sober. Guests spend the first thirty minutes in conversation with screeners before they’re admitted for the night. As far as I knew, Mac never failed the screening. 

After the shelter closed each season, I would see Mac hanging out by the gazebo in Pioneer Park, near my home. My dog and I frequently walk through the small park, which is a way-stop for homeless folks. We’re usually greeted cordially and rarely asked for money — which I never carry. 

One day Mac, alone at the gazebo, surprised me by asking if I could spare a few bucks. I assured him I don’t carry cash and continued home, troubled as I walked. I thought about Mac’s willingness to follow the shelter’s rules, his futile efforts to find work, his estrangement from family. I grabbed a twenty dollar bill, got in my car, and drove back to the gazebo. 

“I know you, Mac,” I said, “and I know you’ll spend this the right way.” 

The next day I again saw Mac in the park, drunk out of his mind. That was last spring. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d taken the easy way out, thrown money at the problem. At the very least, I could’ve driven to a fast food joint and bought a gift card. Mac ultimately died of acute alcohol poisoning. I am sadder and wiser.

All the money in the world couldn’t help Mac, but don’t misunderstand me. It’s vital that we invest in ways to help, both through private charities and public (tax) dollars. There are no quick, one-size-fits-all solutions. Obviously, homelessness is symptomatic of deeper problems. More than a half-million people in our country are homeless any given night. Washington’s homeless population ranks us among the nation’s top ten problem states. 

Still, homelessness is not hopelessness. I’ve witnessed repeatedly how shelter guests move onward and upward — with help: help from friends or families, help from nonprofit or government programs, help from a combination of efforts, from a willingness to give and receive help. Homelessness is not hopelessness, as long as we — all of us neighbors — are willing to help.