Gainesville's homeless now have a place to eat on Thursday nights.
After talking about harsh winter weather for several weeks, the United Methodist Women group at St. Paul United Methodist Church on Summit Street decided to help those who deal with it every day.
"I've been wanting to get this done for a while," said Elizabeth Westbrooks, one of the group members who organized the weekly event. "I thought the church should be doing something, so I thought ‘Let me get this going.'"
On Thursday night, volunteers passed out homemade soup, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, cake and coffee.
"You can't do no better than that," Westbrooks said with a laugh. "Walking to the doctor the other day, I realized how extra cold it is this year. We've got too many homeless people, and somebody's got to lead this."
Westbrooks spread the idea, and community members brought in coats, sweaters and blankets. Church member Cory Buffington volunteered to cut hair.
"Cutting hair is like art to me, and I like the smile on people's faces when they get a fresh cut," he said Thursday night. "I used to practice on myself and any kid in the neighborhood who would let me cut hair. Now I've been doing it many years."
Denise Humphries, who lives under the Queen City Parkway bridge, expressed her appreciation as she sat down with a bowl of soup.
"This is great, and people come to check on us, but one night isn't what it's all about," she said. "I'm working on getting a permanent place."
Humphries is applying for a spot at City Rescue Mission, a non-profit shelter in Jacksonville, Fla., that helps homeless people get back on their feet.
"There are six men's shelters in Gainesville, but only one women's shelter, so it's really limited for homeless women," she said. "What are we supposed to do? I didn't wake up one day and decide I wanted to be homeless."
Tonya Moon and Janice Cox of Gainesville group No Walls Ministries, who sat with Humphries on Thursday, said their goal is to do more than "put a Band-Aid on the situation.
"We give clothes and food, but we try to give more. We try to build relationships and help them find an outlet," Cox said. "We're trying to join forces with rehabilitation centers and fax applications for them. We want to get them ready to get a job."
Moon and Cox visit Queen City Parkway bridge residents several times a week, handing out toiletries and bus tokens, and helping them wash clothes. No Walls also provides a post office box for any mail. The ultimate goal is to build a women's shelter in Gainesville.
"I came from the streets, and if I can help Denise, she can go back and help others, too," Moon said. "That's inside-out purification. There are so many needs under that bridge beyond alcohol and drug problems, such as mental, physical and social disabilities. When there's no shelter, they can get thrown under the rug."
Gainesville resident Curtis Thomas dropped by Thursday night to show community support.
"I thought I would start off the year by spending it in positive areas," he said. "It's about growing and helping, and Ms. Westbrooks is the mother figure here in this community. She gets everybody together, and she knows what you're doing."
Westbrooks moved around the room with ease, reminding everyone to come back next Thursday.
"This is the way it should be," she said, gazing around at the volunteers and visitors. "It was bothering me inside that we were just sitting around and talking about it."