Richard Derr arrived at Saturday Supper with more than food on his mind.
“Someone stole my Carhartt coat this afternoon,” said the man known as “Trainwreck” to some and “Weg” to others. “They just took it.”
Derr showed up to the meal hosted by The Landing MN knowing he’d be helped. After all, Landing co-founder Dan Fifield helped him find a place to live this summer after 39 months of homelessness.
“If he tells you he will get something, he’ll get it,” the 62-year-old said. “It may take a few days, but you’ll get it.”
Seconds after hearing Derr’s plight, Fifield had a coat in hand, but it wasn’t the right fit.
Minutes later, one of Derr’s friends directed him to a pile of donations where he found a new coat.
Derr said The Landing’s responsiveness to individual needs sets it apart from other local organizations.
Jacques Partridge, who currently finds shelter in the skyways and parking ramps, agreed with Derr's assessment of his helper.
“He’s providing a lot of clothing,” said the 60-year-old Partridge, who’s been homeless in Rochester for three years. “It’s more than most have done.”
'Things have been looking up'
Several people attending Saturday’s meal noted the donations of clothes and blankets are just as appreciated as the hot meal, especially with colder weather coming.
In addition to dropping temperatures, they said more people are finding their possessions removed from the skyways, parking ramps and other locations on a regular basis. As a result, the opportunity to replenish supplies on a regular basis is appreciated.
“For the last year, things have been looking up,” Partridge said, pointing to the planned opening of a new nightly warming center and increased community interest in helping people who are facing homelessness.
Part of that interest created Saturday Suppers, which has been serving meals every other Saturday outside the Salvation Army Community Center at 20 First Ave NE.
Fifield said volunteers from The Landing MN started the outreach by handing out more than 130 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in June, and quickly expanded the effort to provide meals every other week.
“It just seemed to be, from a practical standpoint for us, to do it every other Saturday, because we felt we could do that,” he said, noting The Landing is a relatively new nonprofit with a limited pool of volunteers.
The pool is growing, however.
“We have sponsors, so they fix the meals,” he said. “We provide all the set up, all the plates, all that stuff.”
Saturday supper volunteer groups have ranged from individual families to organized church and community groups, including a group of children from St. Charles.
Most recently, it was a group of eight volunteers from Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science’s student services.
“We’re ready to do it again,” Jennah Vold said after nearly an hour of serving tortillas, chips, seasoned meat and beans.
Darla Overton, who organized the group, said seeing the appreciation made the effort worth it. She said she knew she wanted to help after attending community forums on homelessness earlier this year and hearing Fifield’s story.
Fifield, along with his wife, Holly, created The Landing MN after he opted to leave his job as an emergency room nurse to work with people facing homelessness. They’re now hoping the organization can raise enough funds to open a day center for the people they help.
For now, at 5 p.m. every other Saturday, Fifield and other volunteers provide food and a variety of donated items to people in need. They chose Saturday evening because they didn’t want to overlap what other groups were doing near downtown.
The Salvation Army has long served a full hot lunch starting at 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday at its community center, in addition to providing coffee and pastries starting at 8 a.m. on weekday mornings.
Maj. Lisa Mueller said approximately 75 people show up for noon meals each day during this time of year.
Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW, serves a weekly 11 a.m. Saturday lunch to approximately 100 people.
St. Francis of Assisi Church, 1114 Third St.SE, hosts a weekly lunch that starts at 11:30 a.m. Sundays at at no cost to any needy person in the Rochester community. Meals are served at the church, but work is rotated between the local parishes.
Additionally, Zumbro Lutheran Church parks its burrito truck at the Salvation Army on the last two Wednesday evenings of the month to provide food for those in need.
Fifield said all the efforts work together to make sure people struggling with homelessness are helped in the community.
As wintry weather approaches, he said The Landing is working on plans to stage its meals indoors.
“We have a couple of leads,” he said, noting details for the downtown locations are being worked out.
Immediate needs are met. The Landing already has plans for a special Saturday Supper for Nov. 30. The full Thanksgiving meal will be served at Hope Summit Christian Church, 1315 Sixth Ave. SE, and be accompanied by services that include free haircuts.
Again, the schedule ensures the meal doesn’t conflict with the Salvation Army’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner, which starts at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 28 at its Adult Day Program Building, 115 First Ave. NE.
Dan Fifield said such efforts go beyond helping people struggling with homelessness; it also raises awareness.
“It’s been a great educational piece for those who have come and serve,” he said. “The misconception of the homeless population in Rochester is huge. People think they are dirty, drunk, drug addicts, that are mean and nasty.”
The 30 to 40 people who come to Saturday Suppers prove that’s not true, he said, noting they help each other and show appreciation for what is given.
He said his wife asks volunteers if they had any problems after each supper.
“We’ve never heard anybody say anything but ‘No. They were great people to work with,’” he said.