Sack lunches help Houston's homeless avoid having to decide between food and shelter

March 1, 2012
Rebecca Jones

Lord of the Streets and Community of the Streets outreach is located across the street from Trinity Episcopal in Houston.Too often, the homeless people served through Community of the Streets Outreach at Lord of the Streets Episcopal Church in Houston had to make a painful choice: As the afternoon grew late, would they seek food or would they seek shelter for the night?

Sometimes, the options were mutually exclusive. If they are going to a shelter for the night, they usually need to get there by 4 pm.

“And we would see people saying they didn’t want to go to a shelter, and please, couldn’t they just have some food to tide them over for the night,” said Thelisa Palmer, executive director of Community of the Streets Outreach. “We saw that consistently.”

In 2005, Community of the Streets conducted a needs assessment and determined that between 3 and 5 pm, there were little to no resources available for the homeless and disadvantaged to get food before securing shelter for the night.

A year later, the ministry launched its sack lunch program. Volunteers put together nutritious sack lunches and made them available to all who need them.

That first year, they handed out roughly 25 sack lunches per day – more than 13,000 in a year. And since then, the sack lunch program has grown every year. Today, volunteers hand out an average of 151 per day.

“We use this as an opportunity to sneak in healthy stuff,” Palmer said. “We put in raisins, or fruit when we have it. We make turkey or tuna sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Maybe some almonds. If we do chips, it’s baked chips. We try to incorporate some healthy things we know they’re not getting elsewhere.”

Sandwich makers from Trinity prepare sandwiches for inclusion in sack lunches that are given to the needy.The cost per sack lunch is about $2.60. The $750 Jubilee Ministry Health and Nutrition grant will help offset the increasing cost of food to stuff those sacks with, Palmer said. “Our biggest cost is the bread and the meat.”

Lord of the Streets began in 1990 as an outreach program of Trinity Episcopal Church to serve the homeless in downtown Houston. Palmer loves to tell the story of how Trinity’s former rector, the Rev. Steven Bancroft, encountered a homeless man one day sitting on the church doorstep who asked him for something to eat. Bancroft, on his way to a worship service, told the man he would get him some food as soon as the service ended. As he rushed to the service, he realized that he was leaving a hungry man unfed. He stopped and immediately got some food for the man, and left the encounter convinced that the church needed to do more to serve the poor.

For many years, Trinity has offered a 7 am service on Sundays for the homeless. “The doors are open and no questions are asked,” Palmer said. “We want people to know this is their place of worship. Nobody will look at them funny, or scoot away from them on the pew or turn up their nose. And afterward, we provide a meal for them. They get a chance to sit down and be served by others.”

In 2003, the Diocese of Texas established Community of the Streets Outreach as a separate outreach entity. Community of the Streets now provides social services, while Lord of the Streets provides spiritual support for parishioners.

The Community of the Streets sack lunch program is one of several such programs to receive Jubilee Ministry funding this year. Among the others:

  • The Friend to Friend program of Episcopal Community Services in San Diego serves the needs of mentally ill homeless adults. A unique component of the Friend to Friend program is street outreach. Healthy snacks such as granola, fresh fruit and bottled water are offered to clients in place of fast food, in the hopes that such snacks will not only curb hunger but will build rapport with prospective clients.
  • The Feed the Hungry program at Christ Cathedral in Salina, KS, now in its third year, serves sack lunches daily to Salina’s homeless men, women and children. Last year, the congregation provided 4,000 lunches, paid for entirely through donations from parishioners.
  • The Pop Top Ministry at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis serves between 150 and 200 people each week. Parishioners meet every Sunday morning to assemble “to go” meals made up of convenient, single-serve “pop top” cans for the homeless, who don’t otherwise have easy access to facilities in which to prepare food. The parish is in downtown Memphis, miles away from supermarkets or other sources of food. Typical meals include Vienna sausages, pork and beans, crackers, fruit cups or applesauce, a sweet or cookie, and a soda or fruit juice.

--The Rev. Rebecca Jones is a deacon and serves as the Diocesan Jubilee Officer in the Diocese of Colorado.

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