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Couple serves those in need with seasonal 'canteen run'

CHAMPAIGN '” 6:29 p.m.: Barb and Dan Davies finish loading the Salvation Army van '“ what they affectionately call "the canteen.'

Clothes, including a pair of boots. Canned food, with Pop Top lids. A thermos, full of hot coffee. All are donations to be handed out to the street people who need them. What Christians Dan and Barb didn't pack '“ what they say they'll never offer -- are sermons on the ills of alcohol and drug use or anything else blamed for homelessness. It's an entirely deliberate omission.

"We're not here to judge or [proselytize] to people in need,' says Barb, a Savoy resident and member of its United Methodist church. "We're out here to help them meet their immediate needs for food, for warm clothing, for information, for an ear, someone to talk to.'

6:35 p.m.: Barb buckles up, and Dan eases the big white van '“ which doubles as an emergency vehicle '“ onto North Market Street. The last of the day's sun is to their right; they're heading south.

"This is our first time out this season,' Dan says, as he steers the canteen into downtown Champaign. "We plan to eventually work up to going out every Thursday during the summer for a couple hours.'

The schedule for the "Canteen Run' is dictated by the Illinois weather.

While area homeless can still be found outdoors in minus-10-degree temperatures, says Dan, 55, "they're harder to find on the streets in the winter; they've got a network of places, shelters and other locations, to come out of the cold to, it seems.'

More and more, that phenomenon is being put to the test. According to Urbana-Champaign Continuum Care, Champaign County homeless numbers soared to nearly 600 last August.

The 20-percent growth in less than a year coincided with a drop in the number of shelter spaces. Figuring into the decline was last year's closure of Champaign's overflow shelter.

The Davieses were active volunteers for the initiative, which saw homeless men bed down at local churches during the winter months when Champaign's TIMES Center was booked solid.

The program's close last year sent Dan and Barb scrambling for another way to get involved.

7:20 p.m.: The canteen pulls into Campustown, at Sixth and Green streets, and Dan shifts it into park. Earlier stops at the Champaign library and the Illinois Terminal '“ both regular haunts for homeless men and women '“ were a bust: Not one homeless person was found in need. Not one, in fact, was even found.

The Davieses have less than 90 minutes to return the canteen to Salvation Army headquarters. Dan puts in a call to Champaign police, asking them to phone back with any sightings.

"Do you want to walk around here and see if you see anyone?' he asks his wife. Barb heads out onto Sixth. Dan stays with the truck, hoping someone will remember it from last summer's inaugural run and come looking for help.

7:25 p.m.: A block north of Green, a clean-cut woman approaches Barb for "money to buy a cup of coffee.' She slurs the words, and reluctantly accepts an offer of coffee from the canteen thermos '“ that in lieu of the money she wanted. Barb's unable to convince her to take some of the canned food.

"She just came up to [me],' Barb later tells Dan.

They hope to attract much more of that kind of attention this summer, as security guards and storekeepers spread the word about the Thursday night runs and street people begin to seek out their assistance. It's harder doing it the other way, when Dan and Barb have to distinguish the homeless from others walking up and down C-U streets. Still, there are often telltale signs.

On Green Street, Barb takes a second look at a 20-something man she'˜d initially assumed was a U of I student. Standing outside a liquor store, his unkempt clothes and weather-beaten face give him away.

After a brief chat, he tells Barb he's been riding the rails. He and two friends jumped a cargo train in Atlanta. They're bound for the West Coast, first Seattle and then Oregon, he says. Champaign is stop along the way.

"I heard this is a pretty good place,' he says, looking around, "I heard there's a shelter near here we can go to.' He's not interested in the coffee or the food, but accepts Barb's directions to a nearby shelter.

"We see a lot of people who are passing through Champaign,' Barb tells him, also having rhyming off a list of downtown social services for his consideration.

The two shake hands before she climbs back in the canteen. Dan starts the engine.

8:15 p.m.: With 15 minutes left on the clock, the volunteers head back north. The night's been slower than they'd hoped and they decide to hit some of the more successful spots from last year's Canteen Run. On the way they spot a familiar face. Dan stops the canteen, but the man is gone.

The church helped the man out with some money at one point, Dan says. It later learned that much of the man's hard-luck story was a fabrication.

"He sort of burned some of his bridges,' Barb says.

The incident did little to discourage the Davieses or their commitment to the kind of hands-on outreach many Champaign Christians avoid.

"I had one man tell me that he was afraid of homeless people,' recalls Barb, who also volunteered for the overflow shelter. "So I said what exactly are you afraid of? What do you think they're going to do?'

On paper, no fewer than eight area congregations, including the Salvation Army, Faith United Methodist Church, Garden Hills Baptist Church and First Presbyterian in Champaign, pledged themselves to this or last year's Canteen Run.

While the canteen has room for a crew of five or six, tonight there are only three. One volunteer sent her regrets just minutes before the 6:30 p.m. departure.

For the next run, the canteen is packed with volunteers. While Dan and Barb are prepared to go out alone, for safety reasons they'd prefer to have at least one other volunteer accompany them.

"A lot of people don't want to know about homelessness,' says Barb, whose own volunteer work gets added onto a full day working for community services. "It's like they want to have blinders on for life.'

8:29 p.m.: Back on North Market Street, Dan flicks on his right indicator before steering the white van into the Salvation Army parking lot.

He and Barb got lucky at their last stop, Restoration Urban Ministries. A resident of the shelter, operating out of a motel off Bradley Avenue, gratefully received some of the donated clothes.

A smile on his face, he also took the canned food and the TV dinners, promising to share with other residents '“ many of them families with young children. He wasn't interested in what by then was cold coffee.

By Vernon Jones/ For CU-Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.