It is really hot – in the upper 90s – as Manna soup kitchen’s three-person outreach team begins making afternoon visits to Durango’s unsheltered and otherwise struggling residents one recent day.
The drive begins in a park area just down the hill from Manna’s headquarters. That’s where “Jason” typically hangs out in his car, and where he is this hot afternoon. As we pull up next to his car, he peeks out from behind a towel hanging in the window to shade him.
“Hey, Jason!” yells one of the team members. “How ya doin’? Got water?”
“Oh, hi. I’m OK,” Jason replies. “I got two.” He holds up bottles.
“See ya tomorrow!” a team member shouts as the car pulls away.
The outreach program began in February with $260,635 in emergency CARES Act funds granted through the Colorado Department of Local Affairs Division of Housing. The grant is paying for the team members’ wages, the SUV they drive, supplies to hand out, and data entry to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Management Information System. The grant ends in August 2022; Manna will have to seek other funding if the program is to continue past that point.
The back of the team’s SUV is stocked with bottled water, Manna to-go meals, ball caps, lightweight backpacks, disinfectant wipes, face masks, shower vouchers for the Durango Community Recreation Center and more. The team has a generous but careful, unspoken methodology for handing out essentials.
It’s hard to believe this team has only been together a few weeks. Two of them – Chris Mitchell, a retiree from Baltimore with longtime service in shelters for the homeless, and Val Mays, a recent college graduate from Kansas who moved here after working in the Alamosa shelter – signed on as outreach workers in February. Chris Braun, a Breckenridge native and Fort Lewis College graduate who is working on his master’s degree in social work, joined them in May.
All three say they have a deep desire to help others and that ordinary work just doesn’t satisfy.
The afternoon includes a visit to residents at Purple Cliffs, the primitive camping site south of downtown where 50 to 80 unsheltered people regularly live. Three men sitting in the shade are grateful for water and food, shaking hands with team members.
One man’s cellphone has run out of prepaid time. Without his phone, he can’t find out if his retirement check has arrived so he can pay for more minutes. Mays makes a call for him on her phone, confirming his check has indeed come in the mail. Another resident assures the team, “We’ve got this under control,” offering to share his phone with the other man until he gets minutes added.
The SUV cruises the area around Home Depot, where other “regulars” are known to hang out, and comes upon a situation that Mitchell quickly identifies as possibly volatile, asking everyone to stay in the car. A man and woman appear to be having an argument; a third man is nearby. But soon it’s clear no violence is in the offing, and everyone gets out of the SUV to offer supplies.
While some of the team members talk to the group, a nearby man dances happily with his sign asking for donations. The team is impressed with his happy energy on this sweltering day and offers him water, too.
Later, team members talk with a woman who has lost her job and, it seems, much of her hope. Chris Mitchell leans in close for a pep talk. “This is just a process,” he reassures her. “You’re doing everything right.” When it’s time to go, everyone gives her a hug, perhaps transmitting a bit of hope in the process.
Nothing extraordinary happens on this very different summertime tour of Durango. The supplies are much needed, but it’s clear that it’s the listening, the hugs and the human connection the outreach team offers that really count.
And that is extraordinary.