- SERVING: Robert Johnston (left) helps Julius Scott.
With a lot of muscle — in the shape of three big men — and some fancy footwork, former schoolteacher Matilda Buchanan helped move the cumbersome gears of city hall to set up an indoor breakfast for the homeless.
Robert Johnston, Flash Gordon and Virgil Miller, high-profile Little Rock men who wanted the city to help them bring the homeless in from the cold, accompanied Buchanan to a lunch with Mayor Jim Dailey she’d won at a benefit auction. With the mayor a captive audience, Johnston told Dailey that he was going to give coffee and donuts to the homeless under the Broadway Bridge, and he thought it would behoove the mayor to help him bring the breakfast indoors.
Two months and three meetings later, the breakfast station is up and running, in a building at 1307 W. Markham St. From 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, Buchanan, Johnston and some new volunteers are serving coffee and cocoa from two 30-cup urns (one is Buchanan’s), day-old donuts donated by Community Bakery, other donated items, like juice, and food that Buchanan said Johnston “scrounges” up from friends and at events. “He’s literally like Robin Hood,” she said.
On Monday, a donated microwave oven showed up. “Didn’t you hear me pray for a microwave this morning?” an excited Buchanan asked the coffee crowd. “No, this morning it was for a vacuum cleaner,” one of the regulars, Mark Hicks, corrected her, and got up to fetch the microwave.
Johnston, an education consultant and former legislator, said the good cop/bad cop routine (Buchanan was the good cop) the foursome used on the mayor led to a fairly speedy meeting with City Manager Bruce Moore, Assistant City Manager Bryan Day and Barry McDaniel, who heads the city’s task force on the homeless. Little Rock has been judged as one of the worst places in the nation to be homeless.
The task force presented its long-range ideas, but Johnston was impatient, saying, “There are people who are hungry and cold tonight.” At a second meeting, the city told Buchanan and Johnston they could start looking for a place. Camera in hand, Buchanan went block to block downtown and found a building for lease just next door to the Salvation Army, which turns out its overnight company at 6:30 in the morning.
The city said OK, and negotiated a lease at $1,000 a month for six months; the breakfast center occupies half the building. Buchanan and Johnston cleaned the two toilets and vacuumed and opened the doors March 1.
The intention, Johnston said, is to provide a meal and a warm place to people who may not have eaten since lunch the day before. To those who would suggest that day-old donuts are not healthy, Buchanan would reply that the program is targeting the “lowest level, those who sleep by the railroad tracks,” who aren’t thinking about their cholesterol.
The Stewpot, at First Presbyterian, where Gordon is pastor, provides lunch to the homeless or folks just down on their luck and hungry, and for many people living on the streets in Little Rock, it’s their only meal of the day.
Monday’s crowd, some of whom had followed Johnston from his under-the-bridge feedings, had a range of hard-luck stories to tell. Bennie Bice, 62, was recuperating from gangrene that set up in his mouth after a nasty fall broke his nose and caused other trauma to his face. He’d said he’d been working through the Ozark Labor office nearby, putting in insulation at UAMS, but the office had not let him work while his injuries were healing. Julius Scott, who is deaf, wrote a reporter a note that he’d washed dishes, bused tables and made deliveries for A Taste of Asia Restaurant for five years, but that the restaurant had gone out of business.
No women came in Monday, but Johnston said he’s served some.
Now, some of the city’s disparate groups that work with the homeless are interested in using the leased building for other, coordinated activities. Buchanan would like to see clinics established that could assist with legal and medical problems and job opportunities offered.
“This is not a solution, but it will give us data,” Day, the assistant city manager, said. He sees the need for a day center for the homeless, but is careful to point out that the operation on West Markham is not that. It closes at 8:30 a.m., he said, and the estimated 20 or so people now using it must disperse at that time.