PEORIA — Living in tents tucked into a shaded corner of Downtown Peoria, two homeless men were pleased to see Jessica McGhee and Kshe Bernard when they paid a visit Wednesday afternoon.
The women were carrying bottled water and ice to refill coolers they’d given the men weeks earlier. There were smiles and words of welcome for everyone, even the photographer and reporter trailing behind.
"I don’t mind, come on in," said Rob Allen, 40, as he sat up inside his tiny, one-man tent.
As the women bustled around, they visited with the men, asking if they needed anything and talking about scheduling a doctor’s appointment.
"Could I use your phone?" Allen asked McGhee, who unlocked the device and handed it over. When Allen handed it back a few minutes later, he had tears in his eyes.
"I wanted to call my mom and let her know I’m OK," he said.
The visit ended about 15 minutes later with hugs.
"I love you guys," Allen said.
The enclave is just one of the stops McGhee and Bernard make every day to help improve living conditions for the homeless in Peoria. On a typical day, the women visit about 30 people.
The volunteer effort began when the COVID-19 shutdown greatly reduced services to Peoria’s poorest residents. Bernard, who does outreach for Jolt Harm Reduction, a Peoria organization that works to minimize the collateral damage of intravenous drug use, was the first to raise the alert when a soup kitchen at a local church shut down.
"I pulled up in Sophia’s Kitchen’s parking lot in March, and they had a sign on the door that said, ‘Due to the pandemic we are closed.’ There were people, families, sobbing in the parking lot, because they were like, ‘Where are we gonna get food?’" Bernard said during an interview at Zion Coffee. "That’s when Jolt decided to do food distribution."
Bernard’s work with Jolt has given her a glimpse into the lives of the area’s poorest citizens. When she learned that there are people living on the street too disabled to walk across town for lunch, Bernard started doing deliveries, and later McGhee began helping. Even though Sophia’s Kitchen is now back online, the need still exists.
The women are serving people who have fallen through the cracks in Peoria’s safety net.
"I think it’s a fallacy that we have a lot of resources for the homeless community," Bernard said. "We have a lot of resources for the homeless community that check certain boxes."
Women, women with children and even men with children are much more likely to be taken in by organizations in Peoria. Single men, particularly those with substance use issues, mental illness and criminal histories, frequently fall through the cracks, said McGhee.
"One of the biggest things we have a problem with is the term ‘noncompliant,’ because so many of our people are noncompliant for services," she said. "When you have so many things you are already struggling with on the street — you are going to sleep in a community where maybe people are being really loud, or maybe gunshots are going off, so you are not getting any rest, you might have a mental illness you are struggling with, you might have addiction issues you are struggling with, you may have trauma and grief, all of these things that haven’t been dealt with. And then people are like, ‘We can help you if you show up here at 2 o’clock,’ and you don’t even have a phone or a watch."
McGhee, a professional artist who has painted numerous murals around town, became involved in the effort when she offered to make food deliveries on the weekend so her friend wouldn’t be working seven days a week. McGhee quickly realized that paying for the lunches herself was unsustainable, so she created a fundraiser on Facebook.
"I was hoping I’d get a couple hundred dollars and go from there, but we’ve had over 200 people who have given to us in one form or another," said McGhee. "We’ve raised thousands and thousands of dollars, to the point where we’ve had to incorporate so that this wouldn’t be something I had to pay personal taxes on."
While the money has allowed the women to do more, the outpouring of support from community members has advanced the effort even further. Their work has inspired others, like Banu Hatfield, owner of Zion Coffee, who was instrumental in the creation of a weekly shower night for the homeless. Every Wednesday, folks are bused into Dream Center, where they get fresh clothes, a shower and a haircut for free. Hatfield is also planning a fundraiser of her own to pay for backpacks filled with personal hygiene items to be distributed to the homeless population.
While the distribution of food and other items is an important part of what McGhee and Bernard do, their ultimate goal is to provide support, friendship and advocacy for people living on the absolute bottom rung of society. The women get to know the people they are serving and have provided help with everything from health issues to financial problems. They regularly take people to doctor’s appointments, and sometimes even the hospital.
It’s heartbreaking work most people couldn’t do for long, but both women have had personal experiences that have given them a deeper understanding of the issue and a greater sense of devotion to the cause. Bernard and her mother were homeless for a while when Bernard was growing up, and McGhee, who came from a troubled family, was homeless for a number of years after leaving home at the age of 13.
Both women have been befriending homeless people for years, and now that the effort has grown into an organization, they are delighted by the outpouring of community support. Each time McGhee posts a need on Facebook, the call gets answered almost immediately.
"People usually answer within 10 minutes — really. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing."
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.