Feeding their community
“Greensboro’s upper class and the politicians they own want to brush homeless people underneath the rug,” said Earl Clodfelter as he prepped the gas grill he and his wife Kriste fire up in Center City Park every weekend. Kriste was the one who invited me to meet the people they were getting ready to feed. “Hopefully, with your help,” she wrote in an email, “people will realize that being homeless is not a contagious disease.”
She’d also explained that both she and her husband used to be homeless themselves. “I was for around five years, my husband for just under that.” That’s why they prepare fresh free food every Saturday and Sunday, beginning around 7:30 a.m. and continuing until it runs out. “While feeding them,” she wrote, “we also bring hope, kind words, a listening ear, and a smile.”
When I joined Kriste and Earl on the Friendly Avenue side of the park, just before 8 a.m. on July 7, they were making big fluffy pancakes, which Kriste shoveled off the grill and onto paper plates, where Earl slathered them with real butter. The one I sampled was delicious, despite being made from water and a Wal-Mart mix. “Must be the love,” she said smiling.
“That’s what makes it so good,” said a man she introduced as Jimmy. “Without these folks, most of us wouldn’t know where we was gonna eat this morning.”
Jimmy described himself as homeless but not hopeless. “Right now I’m in the process of trying to find another job. There’s this guy I gotta call tomorrow. It’s a truck driving job, and hopefully will come through.”
Earl called Jimmy “good people,” saying he worked with him for eight and a half years. Mike, another man in the line of a hundred or so waiting patiently for pancakes, also described himself as a former trucker. Mike said he’d been homeless for almost three years.
“I mean, this time around,” he sighed. “I was homeless back in the late ‘90s, then got the trucker job I worked about 12 years before it went the wrong way and I was back on the street.”
Mike said not everyone realizes that getting off the streets doesn’t mean permanent salvation. “Finding a job doesn’t mean you get to keep it,” he said. Mike told me he just turned 62 and it’s not easy for a man his age to find work. “I don’t have transportation, so I’m basically waiting for social security. I worked as a machinist for 30 some years before I was homeless that first time, and paid my money to the government.”
While Earl works full-time at Atlas Fencing, he said that he and Kriste spend a lot of time with those who, like Mike, are in the straits they used to be in. While the Clodfelters have had a home together for over three years, they know they could be homeless again with just a little bad luck.
“So many of us are one paycheck away from being out here,” Earl said. “It’s not a matter of budgeting. Budget it all you want, but what happens if you get injured on the job, and the company says they gotta lay you off? What happens when your mortgage payment, your car payment, your insurance, your light bill, and your phone bill all fall on that same week that happens?”
Earl said that he and Kriste met on the street. “We were both in the art program at the Interactive Resource Center when they had that.” He also said they spent time in the same homeless camps. “But when you’re living like that, you have to move around so much. The city’s always coming up and saying ‘you can’t stay there’ or ‘you can’t have your camp here.’ They try to push everybody out of town.”
But he said that’s not going to happen. “This is part of their community, and it’s damn sure part of our community. There are a lot of good people here. That’s why we do what we do. I want to give them a hand up, like was done for us.”
Earl told me he has a standing offer to the Greensboro City Council, as well as anyone else in power who’s offered sympathy but no solutions. “Spend a week on these streets without your debit card and nothing to eat but these feedings. You come out here and figure out how you can survive. Until you can do that, you can’t say you know how it feels.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.