Write about what you know they say. I woke up this morning intending to write about Star Wars but I was overwhelmed with what to say on such a broad topic and how much of it to bite off. Over the course of the day however my focus was redirected and I answered the call to help those in need. You see I am actively involved in a group affectionally and concisely named "Free Hot Soup" with the goal of helping the houseless community of Kansas City. You'll notice I didn't say "homeless" as many times the people we see have homes they just don't fit the norm most of us imagine. A houseless person can live in a tent, a car, a storage unit, under a bridge or like I encountered today the cab of a semi trailer.
I got started with Free Hot Soup in the fall of 2017 by offering to make food around Thanksgiving time with the intention of showing my children how blessed we were and how important it is to help those in need. We had no idea what we were doing but were driven by the desire to help. I found a group on Facebook and noticed one name appeared over and over so I decided to reach out to her. Rachelle responded in minutes and gave me a couple of ideas on how I could help. I got the feeling she must be inedited with messages from people like me who wanted to be involved around the holiday season but were likely only there for a couple of week and to ease their conscience. Even though she was patient, polite, and answered my ridiculous (and maybe a little bit ignorant) questions. Armed with a little bit of knowledge and and a desire to be a part of something that helped my fellow man we bought several cases of soda, put them in coolers and headed downtown to Ilus Davis Park. This small urban plaza sits in the shadow of Kansas City, MO's city hall, courthouse and police station. It is surrounded by one way streets and during a typical work day there are throngs of pedestrians milling around crisscrossing to the various government builds. However on Sundays like that day it's mostly a ghost town. We were told the "picnic" would begin at 2:00 PM so we arrived at 1:30 PM assuming there would be significant setup and prep work needed and hoping to help. We noticed a few people who appeared to milling about waiting for the food line to open but no volunteers were spotted. The park spans 2 blocks so we drove around it a couple of times hoping to see signs of the upcoming event but as it got closer to the deadline we saw nothing. I was concerned I had misunderstood and was ready to pull the plug. Sitting in the van at 1:55 PM I said to my wife we would give it till 5 after then call it.
At roughly 1:58 PM a convoy of cars and trucks rolled in claiming an entire block of the park wrapping around it to the north. Emerging from these vehicles were men, women and children all with a singular goal and an efficiency even the military would admire. In just a couple of minutes they had erected a series of tables running roughly a hundred feet and began populating them with dishes, bowls, boxes of fruits and snacks, bags of chips, plates of sweets and large 5 gallon jugs of hot soup. A line quickly formed at the far West end and I could now see that there was massive throng of people jockeying for position. We poured out of our van and each of us grabbed a cooler from the back. As we didn't know where to park we were in the wrong spot and impatiently waited for the crosswalk to give us the right of way. I scanned the scene as we approached the food line and saw Rachelle. She was orchestrating the organized chaos and she briefly instructed us to pick out a spot at the end of the row. We stationed ourselves just past the dessert table and marveled as person after person made their way through the line to our little spot at the end.
The smiles on their face and genuine appreciation they showed surprised us all. That isn't to say we expected them to be rude or unappreciative just that we had equated not having a home with being unhappy. Don't get me wrong I know that they would like their circumstances to be better but that did not seem to in anyway bring them down. Not here. Not today. They chose to focus on the blessing that was before them instead. They thanked us profusely even though all we had to offer them was can of soda pop, bottles of water and a smile. Many took the time to chat with us before they were ushered away by the next in line eager to claim their own beverage. We took 10 cases of 24 count soda with us that day as well as several cases of water. To my surprise giving just one to each person we very nearly ran out. When things died down I saw some of the volunteers transitioned seamlessly into cleaning up while others wondered around conversing with folks while they were eating. You could feel the camaraderie and the bond they had built. I found the opportunity to talk to Rachelle and to my amazement she knew just who I was, in fact it seemed as though she knew everyone there that day. She thanked me for my involvement and invited me back. I am proud to say I graciously accepted.
We returned to Davis Park every 2 weeks for the next couple of months and began to become familiar with the process and the regular faces. Looking back it amazes me how easily we fell into it and how welcomed everyone made us feel. As much as we loved it we began to wonder if there was an opportunity to do this in the Northland of Kansas City where we lived. That's when we met Jamie, Robin and Monica. Together with my wife the 5 of us hatched the idea of creating a new branch of Free Hot Soup to support the houseless community in our part of town.
For those not familiar with Kansas City, it's a big town. Not in the way New York and LA are with their massive populations rather in that it takes up a lot of space. KC is only 38th in the US based on population but we come in 23rd based on square miles. The "Northland" as we call it being even more spread out than the city center and compromising everything North of the Missouri River and East of Kansas. The result being that we struggled to find a centralized place to serve like they do downtown. We began by asking friends, family and even strangers in FB groups to tell us where they had seen houseless folks around town. We finally chose a centralized(ish) public space in the parking lot of fast food chain and with their blessing opened up the back of our cars and offered food to anyone who happened by and looked hungry.
The first few weeks we only saw a couple of people but they were very happy to see us. In Kansas City almost all of the resources for the houseless community are in the city center. Whether this is because that's where the most people in need already were or they congregated there because the shelters were there is up for debate regardless we were some of the very few offering help in this part of town. With advice from the leaders of the downtown groups we kept going back to the same spot at the same time and word began to spread. I made a Facebook page for our new fledgling group to help differentiate our efforts from the core group and our membership numbers began to climb. We started to add other resources to our supplies and before long we were not just offering food but also clothing, toiletries, blankets, batteries and more. We began expanding out of our little parking lot and created a route visiting spots all up and down the highways where we knew folks were in need. The Northland of KC is cross sectioned with two interstates, I-29 running from the northwest part of town down to the city center to the southeast and then I-35 that runs back northeast from there. We ran the gambit making a huge "U" shape and eventually dedicating 6 or 7 hours each Sunday to try and visit as many people as we could. Being a geography AND computer nerd I built a custom Google map to keep all the spots straight. This was a constant challenge however as they are by their vary nature a transient population. The weather, police raiding camps and proximity to the bus line and food pantries made it necessary for them to move on a regular basis. As our network grew so did Free Hot Soup. While we were the first to branch out the trend we started continued and within a few months there was a Free Hot Soup Independence, Wyandotte/Johnson County and Belton/Grandview. Each having their own challenges, but all with a common goal, to feed and show compassion to our fellow man. In the early days we stored everything in our garages and cars hosting wherever space was available. Word got around about what we were doing however and the health department took notice. On November 11th, 2018 members of the KC Health Department escorted by officers of the KC Police Department simultaneously approached the picnics at our Northland starting spot, Davis Park, Prospect Park and Winner Park (Independence) to confiscate food, serve notices to cease and desist and in some cases pour bleach in perfectly good food. Their rational was that we were essentially food vendors serving unlicensed food in unregulated kitchens. Never mind that there had been no complaints of food quality, that we were not charging money (rather giving the food away) and that our houseless friends begged them to let us serve.
This began several month of back and forth with the city with some leaders meeting with the health department while others took to media to argue our case. Eventually the city backed off but the concern still lingers that they will attempt something again. In August of 2019 Quinton Lucas was elected mayor of Kansas city. While running for office he attended Free Hot Soup picnics and openly expressed support for what we did. As such I held out hope he would be the catalyst of change the city needed to work more proactively with groups like ours who are filling the void left by the city. Sadly the evidence is stacking up against that theory and early this year the city conducted raids on houseless camps seizing tents, blankets and other warming supplies during freezing weather. Efforts are underway to warm those in need and reach out to the city but this highlights the disconnect between government and its poorest citizens. Since the days of bleaching food we've taken steps to insulate ourselves. We have commercial grade warmers, we don't publicly advertise where or when we serve and some parks have been lucky enough to secure licensed food kitchens. Whatever the conditions may be though we will continue to help those in need with a smile and a warm coup of free hot soup. P.S. Now that my wife and daughter have finished watching The Phantom Menace downstairs I think I will join them in watching the reset of the Star Wars series. ;)