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Hot meals for the poor: Salvation Army in St. Paul dispenses nutrition for body and soul

The Rev. Wesley Wheatley helps prepare free breakfast one recent winter morning for those who sleep in shelters or outdoors.
MinnPost photo by Cynthia Boyd
The Rev. Wesley Wheatley helps prepare free breakfast one recent winter morning for those who sleep in shelters or outdoors.

These bone-chilling January days the breakfast line starts forming before sunrise at the front door of the Citadel, the Salvation Army’s building on West 7th Street in St. Paul.

That’s because homeless shelters where they’ve spent the night mostly don’t serve breakfast. Thus a morning parade of homeless men and some women head to the Salvation Army in search of a free, hot meal.

A morning parade of homeless men and some women walk a mile or more, past that symbol of affluence, the Xcel Center, to get to the Salvation Army in search of a free, hot meal.

I came there last Thursday looking for the working poor and met Jacob, too embarrassed about his status to share his last name.

"I try to keep the homelessness on the down-low,'' says Jacob, a divorced dad wearing a fake leather cap with ear flaps and a sweatshirt preaching the Christian gospel.

Only 35, he's desperate to find his way back to a full-time job with benefits and his own roof over his head, instead of the propane-heated tent he sleeps in behind the Union Gospel Mission where he uses the showers, or at his mother's house in New Brighton.   

Jacob had worked as a baker for 10 years but was fired a couple of months ago. "I lost my temper and smacked somebody,'' he tells me solemnly. He earns a little money making candles, but calls that a "dead end'' job, and hopes he'll be hired to another position he's applied for.

I met Mitch, a man who lives homeless and seemingly wouldn't have it any other way, as well as others struggling with emotional problems, or pretty obviously battling chemical dependency demons or the wages of past criminal actions.   

"I came to the street in '95,'' Mitch says, looking for a nephew. He's got family in Detroit who want him home, but he gets along through charity and a small pension from a job making motor blocks. "I'm not enjoying myself, but I'm not miserable,'' he says.     

Fit for the King
Salvation Army staff and volunteers serve breakfast to 850 to 900 people a month, dispensing nutrition for body and soul.

A red-aproned Wesley Wheatley, a reverend, gathers together the kitchen crew for prayer before the food goes out: "Lord God, let us serve a meal that is fit for the King,'' he says.

The Salvation Army budgets $100,000 a year to feed these folks, an average 6,000 meals a month, purchasing food and using food donations from grocery stores, restaurants and schools, explains Yvonne Dobler,  a staff member who oversees the charity's social services.

Later, Wheatley, 68, a Salvation Army caseworker with a degree in counseling, talks frankly about his breakfast guests. They're a mix, he says, with probably 30 percent physically or emotionally impaired and not able to hold jobs, and another 20 percent tagging along to help them. Probably less than 10 in this crowd of 150 or more are able to work full time now when outdoor jobs are scarce. Many won't talk to me; one woman heads out before I can talk to her.

"There are people [here] who have enough money they could get an apartment but that's not their culture. They want to be somewhere where they can talk, drink and play cards,'' Wheatley says.

Some plain like life on the streets. Once, Wheatley says, he had a guy hand him a card that read, "I'm homeless. I don't have to work, worry, be concerned about showing up for any job. When I need money I panhandle and I like it.''

Many are borderline personalities and are "brilliant, and they'll talk deep issues,'' he said. About 60 percent are African-American or African, 25 percent Hispanic and the rest white or Asian.

By 7:30 a.m. dynamo "Mama Helen" Ortiz, 75, and her kitchen crew are dishing out heaping spoonfuls of hot applesauce, sweet potatoes, taco rice casserole and good cheer to the crowd.

"She basically started the whole thing,'' Dobler says about Ortiz, who used to be there every week day but has cut back some lately. Still, she always makes the soup.

"We try to give them a good meal,'' Ortiz says, calling herself a "Mother Hen," concerned about her guests' welfare but never tolerating bad behavior. She won't allow coarse language, yelling or fights, yet disagreements break out about once a month.

Once, trying to calm a ruckus, she was grabbed and thrown.      

Guests arrive
This day guests shuffle in quietly, bundled in hooded sweatshirts and thick jackets, some dragging suitcases on wheels or balancing backpacks.

"Hello, how are you doing today? You made the right turn when you came here,'' chirps a female volunteer on the food line.  

The buffet boasts variety and quantity: disposable cups filled with cold cereal or juice, heaping helpings of green beans and grits, slices of white bread and fruit pies, bowls of steaming soup (yesterday's leftovers revived). The daily menu depends on food donations.  

This day, some 2% milk has soured. "Sorry about that,'' Ortiz tells the gathering.

"It's quite a community,'' of regular diners and volunteers, she muses later, recalling how in the 20-some years she's been cooking for the homeless many keep coming back. "We've also buried some,'' she said, persons felled by cars or cancer or over-drinking. Friends request prayers in memory of the dead.   

Last Christmas, the regular volunteers were joined by suburban church folk like those from King of Kings Lutheran in Roseville, armed with gifts. Over the years St. Paul Police have donated socks.

On the dining tables, napkin holders dispense both paper and messages like "Love thy neighbor.'' The Salvation Army's mission, after all, is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs,'' according to their website.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the operating hours of the Dorothy Day Center. 

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Comments (8)

The Salvation Army is an admirable charity. Among other things its selfless leaders like Rev Wheatley don't draw the big salaries featured in some other national organizations.
The only concern I have is that its religious base leads the Salvation Army into partisan activism on secular issues like Roe v. Wade.

Rolf, I'm not real sure where you're coming from, but as someone who is pro-choice I give the Salvation Army kudos. At least they care about the living. Far too many hypocritic pro-lifers only care about a baby being born. After that the child and its family are on their own.

They don't care if a single mother needs assistance caring for the child or earning a living to support the child. Or if the mother has access to psychological help after being raped. If the child has a severe handicap, they don't care whether the parents medical insurance will cover the medical needs of that child or whether there is any sort of support system available to help them take care of that child. If the family goes bankrupt, too bad.

All far too many pro-lifers care about is making sure that child is born, even if doing so kills the mother. (I'm referencing the Catholic Church in Arizona recently withdrawing it support and connection with a hospital there that saved the life of the mother by performing a late term abortion.)

So if the Salvation Army want to lobby on the pro-life side, I say at least they live their principles everyday by caring for the already living!

That's a valid concern, Rolf.

However, it's precisely because of the Christian call to charity that an organization such as the Salvation Army is as consistent and unfailing as it is. With as much good work as secular charities have done (and they've done a lot), few have matched the longetivity and trustworthiness of the Salvation Army.

I'd like to offer my heartfelt thanks to those who show up every day to programs like this. Even in times like these, do not be discouraged. You are loved more than you know.

The "Christian call to charity" has indeed played a roll in the fine work of the Salvation Army. I prefer though to judge the work on its own, rather than how it wa called.
The Christian call also brought forth the Crusaders; the armies of the Thirty Years War, the Inquisition, etc. It's a mixed bag.

Rolf, you are wrong on your last point. The Crusades had nothing to do with Christ's call to charity, and everything to do with man's greed for money and power.

Never judge a worldview (in this case the Christian worldview) by that actions of those that abuse it for their own gain.

Aaron, you are joking. The Christian Crusades were "holy wars"(Pope Urban II) ordered by the Church to retake the holy land from infidels. They carried crosses with their swords.

Rolf, I'm not of the camp that believes the Pope is infallible. In my estimation, much of the Catholic hierarchy is not mandated in the Bible, thus making it a 'man-made' structure, often abused for power and manipulation.

I recommend that you read the Bible for yourself... you will see that unfortunately, often times, people acting on behalf of Christianity have departed from true Biblical values.

Catholic Charities Dorothy Day Center offers services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The center closes for 90 minutes of cleaning twice a day, during which time people go to other nearby shelters. If the ambient air temperature or windchill is below zero, DDC remains open during cleaning. The center has never been closed during the day as stated in this article. Further, we serve lunch and dinner meals and a warm snack before bedtime. We would be happy to provide your reporter with the facts about DDC and Catholic Charities.

Rebecca Lentz
Director of Communications
Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis