From the start, you pretty much know: everybody getting off the number 3 bus at Fifth and Elm is headed there. Five o’clock on a Thursday, where else? Horizon Park Chapel.

Free food.

Me too. I’m stony. Not homeless, but had to pay two months’ rent at once to catch up. Cleaned me out, and then some. Can’t have Carla coming back (she’s away till Sunday) not knowing if we have a bed or not. Just need to hang on till tomorrow. So, what the heck? I’ve walked past the place often enough. Figure they won’t mind this once. Besides, done this before elsewhere. It’s kind of social…

A short walk, and at Sixth and Fir, there’s quite a crowd. Things are happening. “Lord, forgive me! In Jesus’ name. I will try harder this time…” This from a red-faced gent with the look of someone living rough. He’s holding hands with some guy who must be a pastor. Their arms reach high in the air, forming an arch.

“You here to eat?” asks a guy at the entrance to a big old building. “Could be standing room only. Go down the stairs.”

The stairs take you down and into the building at cellar level. A wide hallway funnels you through double doors and into the belly of the beast. It’s crammed with pushchairs and kids’ bikes and scooters and adult bikes. Whole families are here tonight.

I walk into the large room. A curtain with “Jesus” painted across it hangs behind a stage. The place is packed. Maybe 150 men, women, children. Some from the streets, I’m guessing, some from downtown’s residential hotels, some who have maybe faced empty cupboards in the kitchen and have no money to feed the kids. It’s the end of the month, plus hard times are starting to bite wider. Someone onstage talks into a mike, telling us that God will forgive us, not only for some sins, but all of them.

“Here.” A guy jams a folding chair into my hands. “Find a table.”

“Sit down, sit down,” says this bright-eyed li’l lady. “Everyone calls me Renée.” I squeeze between her and a lady named Gloria. People sit around circular white tables. It feels like one of those awards dinners, minus the tablecloths and bottles of champagne. When the sermons end, volunteer girls blossom out from the kitchen and bring everybody paper plates loaded with, aah, sloppy joes — barbecue-flavored ground beef on open hamburger buns with coleslaw, potato chips, and raw carrots. This is service. And, gotta say: the meat is sweet and delicioso, the bun so tender you hardly have to chew it.

“Seconds?” I ask.

“You can try, but with this crowd,” says Gloria, “you might be out of luck. But they usually have pasta for late people.” She gets up. “Think I’ll try for that.”

By now, the preacher, who Renée says is Pastor Jeff, has picked up a guitar. He serenades us with Christian songs. That’s what they sound like, anyway, except that with all the noise, it’s hard to tell.

One of the volunteers, Amy, brings each person at the table a plastic cup of fruit cocktail. That’s when this guy Chris goes to pick up our desserts. He comes back with little tubs of chocolate pudding. “I wanted to make sure our table got them before they ran out,” he says. I’m getting the vibe that everyone’s kind of like family here, united by our troubles. Chris, Gloria, Eric, Renée, a gent named Quinn Johnson Cisco, and me. We crack open the gloopy brown custards and talk. “They cook these meals down at the Rescue Mission,” says Chris. Seems last week’s was chicken-noodle casserole, organic salad, bread, and watermelon. Sounds darned good.

“The best is the First Presbyterian at Fourth and Date, Sunday afternoons, at 2:00,” says Renée. “Well, the sermon’s at 2:00, and you have to be there. The meal is at 2:30. But it’s worth it. More meat — and that’s what we need — and extras like bacon, fruit, even live music. Real singers.”

Gloria comes back. She has only coleslaw and brown bread on her plate. “They’re out of everything,” she says. “It’s this crowd.”

“We used to serve about 100 meals a week,” says this gal Anna, who’s with the organization, when I ask. “Now it’s up around 200. I’ve been doing this work for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen times so hard.”

Renée talks about going to her granddaughter’s graduation, Gloria about being called for jury duty. Gloria lives in a by-the-week hotel room that runs her a monthly $595. That doesn’t leave much extra. Chris, to stave off hunger between meals like this, collects packets of peanut butter and containers of orange juice at the Lutheran church meals and lives off them. “I have a friend, Rose,” says Renée. “She lives on peanut butter, period. That’s all. She’s 86.” Eric tells how thugs tied him down, beat him up, cigarette-burned his chest, and left him half dead. Renée, who seems so cheery, says she’s bipolar. “You have credit cards?” she says. “I had three. Those card people have made my life hell. They gave me a nervous breakdown. I was locked up in the psych ward at one point. Then one day I just decided. I gave all my cards to Jesus. That really helped.”

When I take a trip to the kitchen to see if they have more fruit cocktail, I meet Michael, sitting at the table beside the servery, eating bread and pieces of melon. “Food here’s good and sanitary,” he says. “But I need medical help. There’s bees and dead squirrels up where I sleep. See?” He shows me his hand and arm, all red and swollen. “Bee stings,” he says. “But I try to stay positive. People are kind. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was right here. A group of Christian children saw my swollen feet one time, and they washed my feet. They did that. It felt good. Real good. So that’s the thing. What we homeless people need is a hand up, not a slap down.”

Type of Food: American

Prices: Free “congregate dinners” Thursday include items such as sloppy joes — barbecue-marinated ground beef on open hamburger buns with coleslaw, potato chips, and raw carrots — or chicken noodle casserole, organic salad, bread, watermelon

Hours: 5:00 p.m. Thursdays (meal starts at 5:30 p.m.), also other nights (contact Horizon for details). You must be on time as food is served in one sitting only.

Bus: 3, 120

Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and Elm (3); Fifth and Fir (120)

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