Matt Longwell doesn’t come every weekend. He’s got a job, and that takes precedence over a free meal. But when he can make it, he’s not there for the food: He’s there for the conversation.
Longwell was one of about a dozen people who gathered Saturday at Schneider Park for a free meal, coffee and clothing, a weekly event organized by a Fort Lewis College student that’s been dubbed Coffee and Conversation with the homeless.
Ellis McNichol, a freshman at Fort Lewis College, started Coffee and Conversation with the homeless the first weekend in December with the help of local nonprofit executive Donna Mae Baukat. Baukat runs Community Compassion Outreach, an organization established to help people survive and exit homelessness.
McNichol said the idea to start coffee and conversation sparked from an email she got from a sociology professor about the best ways to address homelessness. She’s always worked with nonprofits and has volunteered since a young age – and at 20 years old, she’s sure that she’ll be working in the social arena when she graduates.
But for now, she’s been focusing her energy on getting people basic nutrition and supplies.
“It’s so encouraging to have conversations with people,” McNichol said.
This work has helped McNichol realize the prejudice she had toward people experiencing homelessness that she never realized. She began noticing her prejudice when she started working at Manna soup kitchen – something she worked to address as she became more entrenched with the homeless community.
And there are parts of homelessness that are still off putting to her, but now she’s able to recognize that many of the negative things she sees are the product of systemic issues, not personalities. “There are so many deep issues and no evil party to blame,” McNichol said. “There are so many layers; a solution has to come from everybody.”
And although McNichol is taking the summer off from Coffee and Conversation, Baukat has pledged to keep the program running. They’ve met in the rain and in the snow. It’s too beneficial of a program to cut, Baukat said.
David Surles said he recognizes the benefits. Manna closes at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays, so the weekly Coffee and Conversation “fills a void for home-free people to get a hot meal,” Surles said.
There are people Surles knows who show up, and some he doesn’t know, he said. But regardless of where they’re from or where they stay, Coffee and Conversation offers a platform on which people can discuss issues that are important to them.
A lot of people are concerned about their living situations or access to food, and Coffee and Conversation gives people an opportunity to vent, sympathize and relate with one another, Surles said.
This weekend’s meal was a godsend for Matt Longwell– in the past week, he’s lived on $8.
“It’s important to have something for when someone can’t support themselves,” Longwell said.