It was 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and the regular crowd was shuffling in.
But this was no after-work happy hour, although there was a surprising amount of happiness considering the circumstances.
This was the bi-weekly gathering of the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry in the parking lot across the street from Sojourner House, Eau Claire’s largest homeless shelter.
Hosting this assembly were a collection of ministry volunteers ranging from nurses and office workers to retirees and college students.
The invited guests: Homeless men, women and children representing multiple races and age groups.
The activity picked up immediately after two ministry vans stocked with supplies — food, water, shoes, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags — set up shop. Homeless people approached the friendly, familiar faces to grab a treat, collect a snack bag to help them through the next day or request an item to help in their daily struggle to stay warm.
It was a chilly evening, the kind of damp weather that makes it feel like the cold cuts right through whatever coat you’re wearing.
The temperature was 42 degrees, which would feel balmy in January in Eau Claire. But in October, with the body yet to adjust to the season, it felt downright cold to me.
I felt ridiculous — and soft — as I shivered while chatting with volunteers, who show up at this spot for an hour and a half every Tuesday and Friday evening, whether the temperature is 95 or minus 20 degrees, to offer a slice of compassion along with servings of fruit, carrots, pastries and beef sticks.
My short-term discomfort — I only had half an hour before I had to depart for another commitment — seemed even more trivial and, frankly, embarrassing as I talked to a homeless gentleman who stopped by for a snack.
Tony Doan, 58, of Eau Claire had endured the entire day and the previous night outside.
In a way, spending the night outside was a choice, made out of compassion for another person down on her luck.
“I swapped out so a female could stay,” Doan said, explaining that he had arrived early enough Monday to claim one of the 53 first-come, first-served beds at Sojourner but gave up his spot to make room for a woman.
Such self-sacrifice isn’t easy this time of year.
“Nowadays it’s getting pretty cold, and everybody’s kind of fighting for a spot,” he said.
Sojourner director Brianne Berres said recently the downtown facility operated by Catholic Charities has operated at its capacity, and often turned people away, nearly every night for the past couple of months.
Doan said he has stayed at Sojourner most nights since May, as he is saving the cash he makes from working as a groundskeeper at a local cemetery for a place of his own.
“I try to work so I can support myself and not have to depend on others, but at my age it’s getting harder to do heavy lifting and stuff,” he said.
But Monday night he stayed out in the elements, slipping into a stairwell to get out of the wind and rain.
“It was pretty chilly by early morning, but I made it through,” Doan said, speaking matter-of-factly about spending an October night on the streets.
With another brutal Wisconsin winter likely to hit soon, Mike Henry, a street pastor with the ministry, said he’s concerned that the number of homeless individuals in Eau Claire appears to be on the rise even though shelters are full and affordable housing is scarce.
Considering he checks on the welfare of homeless folks sleeping in downtown doorways, parks and other public spaces nearly every night, he understands the need as much as anyone and is saddened that the harsh reality he sees doesn’t arouse more alarm in the community.
Henry is proud of the efforts of the 7-year-old ministry, which typically serves 250 to 300 people per month, but he knows more is needed.
“Charity is wonderful but not the answer,” he said. “Charity is the band-aid to the wound of poverty. Avoid the wound and what causes it, avoid the need for the band-aid.”
Chuck Stokes of Eau Claire has been volunteering with Chippewa Valley Street Ministry for about three years and finds the hands-on helping to be extremely fulfilling.
“It changed everything for me,” Stokes said. “I just think doing means so much more than thinking.”
From the front lines of the fight against homelessness, it’s clear to him that plenty of local residents need a helping hand. On the evenings he is able to join what volunteers call a ministry of presence, Stokes tries to at least make a brief connection with all of the homeless people who stop by the ministry’s humble oasis. On Tuesday about 20 homeless residents mingled with about a half-dozen volunteers an hour before Sojourner began checking people in for the night.
“We can’t change the world overnight,” Stokes said, “but every once in a while we can create a smile and hopefully it will last for a while.”
Indeed, I saw it happen as one young woman grinned at the prospect of a warmer used coat and other homeless folks enjoyed the friendly banter with volunteers.
When my half hour was up, I thanked everyone for allowing me a sneak peek into their world. Though my heart was warmed by seeing the friendly interactions between haves and have-nots, I still eagerly climbed into my car, glad to be out of the cold and thankful to be able to crank up the heat and fire up the heated seats.