09/05/2012 09:42 am ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

Salvation Army Bed And Bread Trucks' Mobile Soup Kitchens Feed Detroit's Homeless 365 Days A Year

In Detroit, where poverty teeters dangerously close to the norm at 38 percent, trying to tip the scale back begins just by feeding the city's neediest individuals.

The Salvation Army Bed and Bread Club program's mobile soup kitchens are one of the approaches to combating hunger and providing a safety net for homeless individuals in the city. The program, unique to Detroit, sends three trucks on routes every day, stopping at 55 set locations to hand out a total of 3,000 meals.

On a hot day in late August, one of the three trucks that roams the city daily approaches its first stop at Stimson Street west of Woodward Avenue. People are clustered on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Towers, waiting expectantly for the unmistakable white vehicle emblazoned with the red Salvation Army logo. They continue to trickle by in the 20 minutes the large truck idles. In the back, which serves as a food prep space with shelving, coolers and a counter, employees prepare bologna sandwiches to hand out the two windows. Some recipients wait their turn and leave quickly, others linger and chat with friends or Bed and Bread employees. There's also iced tea, water, pineapple and granola bars. Someone donated specialty tomatoes, and workers try to tempt the line of people with the fresh produce.

"They are very kind, they're nice, especially when you're hungry," says 23-year-old Patrice Johnson, who has been coming to get meals from the Bed and Bread truck for several months. "There's no shame in it."


While many of people the trucks serve are homeless, there are others, like Johnson, who have places to live but still need daily help. Johnson was previously homeless and stayed at a Salvation Army shelter in the past, but recently found a place to live in Highland Park, a city several miles away within Detroit's borders. The Cass Corridor neighborhood has long been her hangout, and she returns to it frequently for anger management classes and therapy. She has a two-year-old son in foster care, but is working to get him back, receiving treatment for bipolar disorder and ADHD while preparing to take the test to get her GED.

Johnson seems to be steadily organizing her life. Others have noticed, commenting on her resourcefulness.

"I'm an Internet fanatic," she says. She uses her phone and library computers to get online to find assistance and programs. Unemployed and looking for a job, she imagines she could be a resource and do outreach with other people who are trying to make their way out of homelessness.

Focused on making her apartment a home, she asks caseworker Rozell Smith where she could find affordable furniture. Smith knows the regulars on the route, trying to get some, particularly women and children, into shelters, and giving out recommendations for different services.

Jeri Wofford, 59, takes a recommendation for a dentist. She lives in the senior living apartments nearby and struggles with lung disease and fibromyalgia, living in daily pain.

"I deal until He takes me away," she says. Wofford lives by herself and the daily meal from the Salvation Army helps stretch the groceries.

The truck will make 15 stops, looping around the greater downtown area and southwest. At a site downtown, a family walking by wearing Detroit Tigers shirts looks on curiously as the homeless line up. Soon, the truck starts to move again, on to its next destination at the Hotel Yorba (the former hotel, now affordable housing, was made famous by a catchy White Stripes song), only to stop as a latecomer walks up.

The Stimson Street spot is one of the largest, feeding up to 100 on some days. On that Thursday, they serve 59 adults and two children, though with school out, they often see more -- over 50 percent of Detroit's youth live in poverty.

"In summer [there are] a lot of kids," says Chef Gary VanWicklin, who prepares the day's meals back at the Harbor Light Center. "The need is heavier in the summer."

Even behind-the-scenes, like in the efficient kitchen where VanWicklin manages a staff of three employees and two volunteers to make the 5,000 Bed and Bread meals for trucks and shelters, financial strain is a part of daily life. The program is supplying seven percent more meals than in 2011, but has had to make do with fewer staff members after budget cuts.

Despite its established track record of feeding the needy, the Salvation Army struggles to reel in monetary and food donations. Charitable giving has been down nationwide in the last few years, though incidentally, Detroit ranks high, with city residents donating 11 percent of their income on average. That's more than double the state and country rates.

The 25-year-old Bed and Bread program, which has since been replicated in other cities, was founded in Detroit and is largely funded by a yearly radiothon, which raised $1.7 million in February, according to Crain's Detroit Business. Donations are also down significantly since the program's longtime advocate and broadcaster Dick Purtan retired from his post at WOMC FM 104.3.

"With donations down ... we're trying to get blood out of a rock," VanWicklin says.

Under a third of the food for the Bed and Bread program is donated, and the rest is purchased cheaply from places like Gleaners Food Bank. Some of the biggest costs are actually non-perishables like disposable cups, bowls and plates.

So a little creativity goes a long way, and VanWicklin will likely take anything that comes cheaply and try to work it into a meal.

"I try to think outside the box," he says.

It doesn't always pan out. He once took a chance on a large quantity of chicken boullion that turned out to be too salty to use in soup, no matter how he tried to dilute it.

The lunches served from the trucks are simple and well-balanced, with special holiday meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas and even St. Patrick's Day this year. In other rooms of the sparse kitchen, employees prepare chicken and a meaty bean dish that will be served at the shelters. Shortly after noon, individuals from the rehab facility file in.

"You don't want to give them the same thing everyday," says VanWicklin.

Throughout the Salvation Army headquarters and in the trucks, people go about their work cheerfully even as they are realistic about the struggles of those they serve.

"I like to see the people [who] need get taken care of … it makes you feel good that you're doing something for them," VanWicklin says.

Anthony Norris, who has been driving the Bed and Bread trucks for a year after working as a monitor at the Harbor Light rehab facility, agrees.

"People come up to the truck and tell you you're doing a good thing," he says.

Norris, who was raised on the city's northwest side and still lives in the same neighborhood, said he can occasionally get frustrated by the people who try to wrangle an extra sandwich or pester him for more food. But after seeing desperation day in and day out, he also can't help but offer extra food to people who appear to really need it.

"Sometimes it's hard to say no. You want to give everybody the same, but deep down you're like, they're really hungry."

Norris has been in the business of helping people since 1995. He was in an accident with a bus in 1991 and suffered no lasting damage, but seeing others in the hospital with more serious injuries sparked a change in him.

"I was blessed to walk away from the situation," he says. "I just had to pray to God, what is my purpose."

"This is my purpose, to help people less fortunate … this is my calling."

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Salvation Army Bed And Bread Trucks Feed Detroit's Needy