Come January, Nicole and Andrew Stull will have been homeless for one year.
Like most people in their situation, they never expected to be in the same place economically for this long. When they moved to Spokane a year ago, they were supposed to get right and eventually get back on their feet – their young children back in Moses Lake are waiting for them.
But it wasn’t to be. For a while, they were staying at homeless shelters. But they didn’t like the fighting and drug use around them. So they packed a tent and camped on a Spokane River embankment.
They stayed there for a while, even during the cold, rainy fall months.
“It did rain a lot,” said Nicole Stull, cozied up next to a portable space heater, a bowl of warm tomato soup in her hands. “We were lucky to have a tarp that went over top of it.”
Tony Epefanio has heard stories like the Stulls’ from many homeless people. For some time, he’s gone to encampments and met with people face to face, or called charities or shelters asking what he can do to help.
After some thought, and as the owner of Shameless Sausages food truck and president of the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association, he settled on giving something he knew well: a hot meal.
“On a regular basis, you’ll see seven people out there all day long,” he said, pointing to the Interstate 90 overpass near Maple Street. “You’ll see a ton of people under the bridge. This is a regular spot. So I just went out and talked to them.”
On Sunday, Epefanio and other food truck owners braved the cold to divvy out fresh food, water, Gatorade, chips, doughnuts, warm clothing and hand warmers to dozens of homeless people in the parking lot of the downtown Grocery Outlet.
The crew of Meltz Extreme Grilled Cheese food truck also was there, preparing grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
“It’s a lot of fun giving away grilled cheese, putting smiles on people’s faces,” Meltz owner Joe McCarthy said.
“Plus, what’s better in cold weather than a grilled cheese and tomato soup?” added the truck’s general manager, Kevin Howard, as he cut apart rows of sandwiches before plating them.
For 2 1/2 hours, a nearly constant stream of people lined up, some of them eating a hot meal for the first time in days. Others were more interested in the hand warmers for their pockets or new socks for their freezing feet.
Rather than advertise online, Epefanio and others relied on word of mouth, which worked. Not knowing what to expect, Meltz prepared to serve about 400 sandwiches. By the first hour, it’d served about 100.
Some members of the public dropped by and donated clothing, money or food. One of the bigger donations came from Jeanette Bocook, who brought more than 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and multiple boxes of donated clothing.
She grew up in poverty and has a father who was homeless for over 10 years. She said she tries to help every chance she gets.
“A lot of people are desensitized,” Bocook said while passing out the sandwiches in plastic bags carried in a gray milk carton. “I just wanted to hand out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because I keep seeing people go hungry.”
Nearby, a group of 20-something friends standing near a table munched on sandwiches and slurped tomato soup before heading to the mall to get a glimpse of the Seahawks game. Then it was off to the House of Charity to ensure they get a decent spot.
“This is just awesome,” said Josh Fancannon, with a mouthful of cheese. He recently moved to Spokane from Everett to be with his girlfriend. “It helps a lot.”
“My girlfriend and I haven’t eaten for two days,” said Michael Clark, who along with his brother, Allan, moved out of their parents’ house a week ago.
Near the group, people sat huddled at tables near a heater and made conversation, not unlike friends catching up over lunch at a restaurant.
Nicole Stull sat with them.
While she talked with the others, the 6-month-old Chihuahua in her pink purse slept soundly. A schnauzer-pit bull mix at her feet stared up at people in bemusement.
For a moment, she said, it felt normal, even though the tables would soon be packed up and the heater returned. She’d head back to her friend’s apartment, and then after that, who knows.
A few yards away, Andrew Stull rummaged through some of the clothes Bocook dropped off.
“Look what I’ve got,” he said, dropping a rucksack full of warm clothes in front of Nicole.
“I think we’ll be OK,” she said.