Soup With a Smile

Their mission is to help the homeless, but now the Catholic Workers are trying to keep a roof over their own heads.

It's a cold Friday evening in Denver, and 100 people have gathered at the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen for a free meal. Steamy bowls of cream of chicken soup sit next to servings of tossed salad and slices of apple pie; a friendly volunteer walks around the room, pouring coffee and chatting as amiably as any waitress in town.

Some of the "guests," as the Catholic Workers call the people they serve, sit and talk to themselves, lost in their own world. Others look like they're just coming out of a binge of one sort or another. Some are new in town and are simply getting together the money to rent an apartment but have found themselves homeless while they wait for that first paycheck.

The Catholic Workers have strung multicolored lights across the room; a volunteer is passing out Christmas cards and offering to mail them. But the Christmas spirit seems far away from the dinnertime conversation at one table. Someone has been murdering homeless people in Denver, and everyone at the table fears they will be next.

Mmm, good: Byron Plumley makes it chunky.
Mmm, good: Byron Plumley makes it chunky.
Serving soup and God: Many homeless people rely on Byron Plumley and volunteer Mary Howard.
Brett Amole
Serving soup and God: Many homeless people rely on Byron Plumley and volunteer Mary Howard.

"The way the murderer sees it, he's doing the world a favor by getting rid of useless people," says Ericka Lear, a young woman who was recently married and just came to Denver with her husband, Len.

The couple was shocked by the cost of renting an apartment here, and both have been working to raise the money. They spent a few days on the street before meeting someone who let them stay in a room at his house for a few days. Ericka, who comes from a middle-class family in Pennsylvania, says that being homeless has been a revelation.

"This country is based on material success, and there's no room for failure," she says. "People see not having a home as a failure, and they don't want to be confronted by it. This is the first time in my entire life I'm not spending Christmas with my family."

Across the table, a man who says his name is Tyrone nods in agreement.

"You've got to be strong, sis," he tells her. "At Christmas, you have to be strong."

Tyrone has spent the last fifteen years traveling from city to city, hitching rides on freight trains. A veteran who served several years in the Army, he wears a dirty down parka and a knit ski hat. Tyrone says that people need someone to look down on, and the homeless fill the bill. "The homeless are the new black man and the new American Indian," he says. "Society has to have somebody to shit on."

He believes that right-wing talk-radio hosts have made it okay for people to despise the homeless. "A lot of people listen to the radio and think they should hate the homeless. But it's a hate crime. It's like picking on a cripple for these people sitting in their large, warm homes to hate homeless people."

The $100,000 reward offered by an anonymous donor to anyone who finds Denver's killer of the homeless makes Tyrone suspicious; he wonders if it's a fraud. "Nobody cares about the homeless that much," he claims.

Except for the Catholic Workers, that is.

"It's only the Christians that feed and clothe the homeless," says Tyrone. "If it weren't for the Catholics, the homeless would be exterminated."

Thousands of Coloradans will go to church this week to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and most of them will probably give little thought to the people huddled along downtown streets or camped out along the Platte River. In a booming economy where one of the most popular game shows is called Greed and employers beg people to come to work, it's hard for many to understand why some people can't make it.

There are 100 different stories on any given night at the soup kitchen. Listening to them makes the usual stereotypes of the homeless as lazy drunks and drug addicts seem empty. Many are here as a result of abusive families, mental illness or just plain bad luck. Some of them do abuse drugs and alcohol, but the Catholic Workers insist that even a drunk is a human being who needs to be fed.

"Serving a meal is really about building a relationship, " says Byron Plumley, who has been involved with the Catholic Worker for the past twenty years. "It goes way beyond serving soup. When you learn to love people without judgment, you understand why they are the way they are. This society doesn't work for some people."

One of the ironies now facing the soup kitchen is that it, too, may soon be homeless. This spring it was evicted from its longtime home at 2412 Welton Street after the owner, Peter Moore, sold the property to Northeast Denver Housing, a nonprofit group that plans to turn three buildings into a mixture of expensive condominiums and affordable housing. The group received a $468,000 interest-free loan from the city.

The Catholic Archdiocese allowed the Catholic Worker, which is not formally a part of the church, to open in an empty building that it owns at 18th Avenue and Logan Street; the building formerly housed the Catholic Central High School. But residents in the Uptown neighborhood complained to the city, which issued a cease-and-desist order. The soup kitchen has appealed that ruling, and a hearing will take place before the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals on February 15. The soup kitchen has been allowed to remain open during the appeal process.

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