More than most people this holiday season, Pastor Eric Johns knows what it feels like to be poor, hungry and without a home.
“Sleeping on the concrete is hard, even with padding and a good sleeping bag,” Johns said. “I take ibuprofen every day for that. And the amount of walking – even if you have good shoes – by the end of the day my feet hurt.”
Since Monday, the West Side pastor has walked a mile – actually, 10 to 15 of them daily – in the shoes of the homeless. He’s slept under a highway overpass and eaten at soup kitchens, part of a yearly routine dating back to 1999 aimed at drawing attention during the holidays to people who are less fortunate and to inspire donations of food and toys for area families.
This year, though, the need at local soup kitchens like the one Johns runs through the Buffalo Dream Center is more evident than ever before.
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“There’s more people standing in line for food than have never stood in line for food before,” Johns said. “If I go down the line and talk to people, a lot of people tell me, ‘I’ve never been to a food pantry. I’ve never had to do this. This is the first time.’ “
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Johns and his mobile food pantry were bringing food to 30 different neighborhoods in the city. They fed roughly 400 families per month.
That number nearly quadrupled to 1,500 families per month during the pandemic, Johns said, and while the number has “leveled off” since, an average of 1,000 families still receive food each month.
“And that’s, I know, because of the prices,” he said, referencing inflation.
This year, Johns has also noticed more people panhandling in North Buffalo and on the West Side, near Niagara Street, he said.
Boxes of Love, a Christmas campaign run by Johns’ church, aims to give food to more than 3,000 families this Christmas. Thousands of wrapped gifts will also be distributed to needy children, Johns said.
Johns is also working to break the stigma of homelessness. His core message: people without a home are people, too.
“I’ve met people that have had a drug or alcohol problem. People have mental disorders,” Johns said. “But I’ve also met people that had a tragedy happen – many people that had their house burn down and somebody died. And it just put them in a state where they just couldn’t deal with life.”
On Wednesday night, 70 people came to the Dream Center on Lafayette Avenue for pizza, subs and homemade soup. Many who come are not homeless but are still in need of food, he said.
Earlier this week, a Hamburg man approached Johns and told him that his wife had died and he was in a state of depression. A group of friends coaxed the man into attending the Dream Center’s “lasagna night,” a yearly party thrown for Buffalo’s homeless.
“His words were, ‘I wanted to be miserable. I wanted to be depressed. I wanted to be alone. But everybody at your church was so freaking joyful,'” Johns said. “He said that one event, coming to that lasagna dinner, really turned that season around for him in his life.”
This year, Johns’ two teenage sons have joined him out on the streets of Buffalo.
Alex Johns, 19, shared a story about Kenny, a homeless man he met who was evicted from his apartment after his mother and sister died and he could no longer pay the rent alone.
Johns said he noticed the man had on track shoes but no socks. He gave him an extra pair of his own socks and walked the man to a nearby Tim Hortons to buy him coffee and a sandwich.
Asked where he was sleeping that night, Kenny said a friend agreed to let him sleep on his couch, but only if he came up with $5.
“A guy in Tim Hortons overheard that, and he walks outside as we’re talking to the guy, and we go to pray with him, and as we’re praying for him, this guy walks up and hands Kenny 5 bucks and says, ‘Go sleep on the guy’s couch tonight and be warm,'” Alex Johns said.
To support or volunteer for the Buffalo Dream Center’s Boxes of Love program, visit buffalodreamcenter.org or call 716-854-1001. Those in need of toys and food can also visit the website to register their families.