Near the lifeguard station in Ocean Beach, nine homeless people have gathered. One lies in the grass of Saratoga Park, legs crossed and hat tilted over his eyes. One stands nearby, smoking a cigarette. Two others sit together and talk. Walking past, you might not notice them. But if you did, you might also wonder what they’re doing. Are they waiting for something?
It’s 3:45, Monday afternoon. It could be 3:45 on any or every one of the past 900 or so Saratoga Park Monday afternoons.
By 4:00, seven more street folks have approached. They’ve carried over threadbare bags and wheeled along rusty bicycles.
At 4:10, a white minivan pulls up, and the transients — 20 of them now — jump to attention.
The man in the van brings milk and juice for everyone.
‘‘They were just throwing this stuff in Dumpsters,” he says, as he empties out two full crates of half-pint containers. “And these people, these homeless folks, they’ve been calling 92107 their home for longer than a lot of us have. They’re good people. And they definitely deserve to eat.”
And then the anonymous big-hearted man in the white minivan drives off.
The people in the park are drinking milk and juice, but no one goes anywhere.
The man in the van isn’t what they’ve come here for. They’ve come because She comes here. Every single Monday — for the past 900 or so Mondays.
By 4:25, over 30 folks are waiting in the park. They show an unshakeable faith.
“She’s still going to come,” says one. “She’s just late sometimes.”
The crowd swells to 40. No one seems restless. They all are patient with the patience of the drifter.
Sure enough, a minute before 4:30, she comes. In a little blue pickup truck with the flatbed brimming. It’s full of food.
Lupe Haley stands all of 5 feet tall, maybe 5’2”. She sports a mane of curly red hair, lots of rouge, and bright red lipstick. She hops — hops! — out of the passenger seat, in her thick blue coat, pink hat, pink scarf, and pink boots, and she’s already calling out directions.
“Okay,” Haley says, vigorously. “Come on. Everybody!” Her words are easy to understand despite a thick Mexican accent.
Haley’s husband, who was driving the blue truck, along with several of the residentially challenged, help Haley carry armloads of drinking water, fruit punch, paper plates, plasticware, pies, bread, and paper towels. And then come the serving trays of salad, macaroni and cheese, chicken, sausage, beans, and goodness knows what else. Dozens of armloads. Everything gets carted over to a picnic table and to the grassy area around it.
This is a holidaylike feast, but today’s not a holiday. It’s just another Monday.
The thing is, Haley has fed people in Saratoga Park every single Monday evening for 18 straight years. Sometime early next year, she’ll reach her 1000th consecutive week.
Tonight, before anyone eats, Haley brings them all together. “Let’s gather now for the Word of God,” she says. “Come on everybody.”
Haley, 54, who is the pastor of New Heart Community Church in Golden Hill, launches into a sermon that begins, “Eighteen years ago, I was homeless, O Heavenly Father.”
A few sentences later, her voice rises into a hymn. Many sing along, while the red sun begins to find its way toward the pier and the waves rumble in the background.
After the Lord’s Prayer, the congregation bows its collective head. Many hold hands. And Haley leads them in saying grace.
“Now, who’s going to cut the cake?” she asks, all sing-songy, turning her attention to the food and holding out a knife.
“Here,” Haley says. “You help hand out the plates.”
The woman never stops talking and moving and buzzing with energy.
The homeless have formed an orderly line, stretching from a picnic table to the ocean, paper plates in hand. They shuffle forward to where Haley, in rubber gloves, serves them. Heaping portions for everyone.
Haley knows most of their names, and she says a few words to each as she piles hefty servings on their plates. Some of them hug her.
Erin Crowley’s been eating Haley’s Monday-night meals since January 2004. “She’s always here,” Crowley says. “Always here, no matter what.”
Is this the best meal Crowley eats all week?
“It’s definitely the biggest meal,” she says. “And it’s not bad. She makes do with what she can get. If she has to mix rice and noodles and beans together, you know…But the important thing is, she comes out with a great big pot, and there’s always plenty for everybody. And then there’s the bags we can take away for the rest of the week.”
Indeed, whoever wants a bag of bread and juice and other goods can take one.
Larry only just heard about these Monday-evening meals. “This is my third week,” he says. “Some other homeless guy over by the pier turned me on to it. One thing is, I never leave these meals with an empty stomach. I always leave full.”
Another fellow, whose bright white hair and bright white beard stand out, looks toward Haley and smiles. She’s serving the last few people with a long metal spoon. The man says in no uncertain tones, “I don’t know why she does it, but it doesn’t matter. Lupe’s a saint.”
The Taj Mahal of Food Banks
The San Diego Food Bank has been around for 30 years, 5 of them at its present location on, of all places, Distribution Drive.
You enter the San Diego Food Bank marketplace through a truck-sized opening in the wall of a warehouse. Ceiling-high stacks of pallets and cardboard boxes serve as walls. At the checkout — a desk with a computer on it and a metal floor scale for weighing goods — the warehouse clerks, Arturo Valdivia and John Bode, ring up purchases and help you get the stuff out to your car.