If you live in a large or populated city, odds are you’ve seen them. Maybe it was a quick sighting that made you uncomfortable so you turned away or maybe they spoke to you, asking for help or what you could spare. We’ve all been a witness to homelessness, as they are a people that most surely exist, though it’s more comfortable for us to ignore them and pretend that such pain isn’t really happening, not in our world, not in 2015. But exist it does and Joan Cheever, advocate for the poor and homeless spanning three decades, long ago decided to bring light to the invisible people living on the streets we pass everyday, and it started with a late night trip with her two young sons who, like so many of us, were being picky about their food choices.
“I just remember we had moved here, to San Antonio, and I was finishing up a book and they were in public school for the first time and they were normal tweens who just started saying ‘I want, I want, I want’, and I just kind of at one point hit the wall and just put on a pot of spaghetti and a pot of chili and just grabbed them and said, ‘we’re going to go and find people who don’t have anything and aren’t complaining and you need to see this,’ and it was really about teaching compassion,” recalled Cheever.
With her sons and warm food in tow, Cheever packed her car and set out for the streets of San Antonio, finding people living under underpasses or in nearby parks, quickly realizing it wasn’t hard to find the homeless if you opened your eyes to it. Not long after, night trips like that were becoming something of a routine for Cheever, who connected with a local group in San Antonio called Under The Bridge, and with them, every Sunday, served hot lunches under the underpasses in downtown San Antonio to the kinds of people many never give a second glance to. With an overwhelming need to help, in 2005, Cheever founded The Chow Train, with a mission to serve restaurant quality food to the hungry and the homeless of San Antonio.
Cheever, an award winning legal affairs journalist, a former managing editor of the National Law Journal, and a member of the bar in Texas, New York and Connecticut, took her natural instinct of getting the story out there and coupled it with her passion for helping people, and in 2012 received her associate’s degree in Culinary Arts. Cheever was now a recognized chef and The Chow Train was about to go mobile.
“I had series of conversations with people in city hall and the health department and they felt like if I had a food truck then they would feel more comfortable,” remembered Cheever. “So I just thought it would be a good investment and a really good way to be able to get to the people who need it and not have them have to go across town to get a meal.”
And so the Chow Train had actual wheels and within days of becoming licensed had its first mission. In May 2011 a devastating tornado touched down in the city of Joplin, Missouri, resulting in the deaths of 161 people and pure destruction of what was once homes, businesses and schools.
“The truck had just been newly licensed. It was licensed on a Tuesday and by Friday we were on the road to Joplin because at that time when I saw those pictures, I realized that there are people that are chronically homeless, or homeless for periods of time and then there’s people that are newly homeless, like people in disasters, and so we used the truck a lot for disaster relief because it’s a fully equipped kitchen,” explained Cheever, who was in full realization of just what the Chow Train could now do, not just for her hometown of San Antonio, but wherever it was needed.
“I think having the food truck and realizing the places we can go and the people we can serve and it’s not just the homeless and working poor but we also go out to feed children in the summer who may be in different programs that aren’t being served,” added Cheever. “We also do public events and The Chow Train, which is 501(c)3 non-profit, our mission also is to educate people about hunger and homelessness and what they can do. I think it got big, bigger, because of buying the food truck, which my husband and I put in money and family members and then friends and I’m a pretty tough sales woman and so people just wrote me a check to shut me up.”
Like any nonprofit, fundraising is key and to Cheever, the best PR is to just keep doing what you set out to do, letting your actions and hopefully, your results talk for you and inspire others to help.
“In the beginning it was [hard], but that’s when you have to turn on your creative brain,” recalled Cheever, who relied on her savvy shopping skills and the relationships she developed with local farmers and grocery chains like HEB and Trader Joes, who all afford her and The Chow Train the quality foods that enable her to prepare nutritious, balanced hot meals to the many who often go without.
“The guys on the street tell me it’s not just a meal, it’s a plate of love and so I think when you go through the trouble of serving a really nice meal to someone or to the rest of us when we go out to a restaurant, when we have a really great meal, it’s a wonderful memory,” explained Cheever. “So I think a hot meal is important because the people on the street especially, need the vitamins, need the hot food and they need someone to let them know they are loved.”
With three course menus that always start with a hearty soup and include fresh salads with plenty of greens and vegetables, Cheever and The Chow Train serve good, quality meals like pasta with Bolognese sauce, braised lamb and chicken enchiladas and always end with fabulous local and fresh fruit desserts. Cheever and her team of volunteers are very selective with their foods; their menus, while often dictated by the farmers and what they have on hand, are always held to high standards and done so with the purpose of letting those she hands the food to, know that they deserve it. Serving meals with dignity is something of great import to Cheever, who credits her mother and father for instilling in her the importance of giving back to one’s community. Having worked in this way for almost a decade now, feeding the homeless and working poor of San Antonio, Cheever found herself in the middle of a controversy that has traveled far outside the lines of Texas and into national headlines.
On April 7, Cheever was given a ticket, with the possibility of a fine of $2,000 from the City of San Antonio, which stated that she, acting as The Chow Train, violated a city ordinance requiring mobile vendors to deliver food from a licensed vehicle. Though The Chow Train’s mobile food truck is indeed licensed and permitted with the city, Cheever often finds the truck too big for certain stops and so, transports most of the meals out of her own pick up truck, a practice she has been doing for many years, and one, she argues, that is not unlike the way Dominoes or any other pizza delivery operates. Though the city maintains that her citation was due to concerns for food safety, Cheever believes otherwise, and is using this opportunity of national awareness to point out the city laws that she feels are criminalizing Good Samaritans.
On July 7, Cheever appeared in court over the matter and was asked to submit to a plea deal, one in which she would admit guilt and suspend further “criminal” actions.
“I said very nice and politely, ‘no way’,” quipped Cheever. “I want to take it to a jury and I’d like the people of San Antonio to have a community conversation about this. I’m tired of listening or talking to City Hall.”
As of now, a jury trial is set for Sept. 23 where Cheever is hopeful her peers, in a loud and resounding voice, will let the city know that they disagree with this ordinance. While a petition on change.org demanding the ordinance be dropped altogether stands currently with over 65,000 signatures, it seems likely that she’ll get her wish.
“It happened in April and it’s gone all over the country and donations are coming in and now this issue, this spotlight, is on San Antonio all over the world,” stated Cheever. “I’m humbled and heartened that people have reacted the way I envisioned that they would because there’s a lot of people that do what I do, I’m just the one that got the ticket and San Antonio, I grew up here, I was born here, I just recently moved back here and in the San Antonio that I know, we take care of our neighbor when they’re down and out and need a hand. So this is a new low because we’re a wonderful city, we just have a stupid, mean-spirited ordinance on the books that needs to be repealed and start over fresh and start taking care of people.”
Serving a gamut of individuals afflicted by hunger over the past decade or so, Cheever has seen, first hand, the non-discriminatory way disaster or misfortune can affect a person’s life. Before she ever had her own mobile food truck, The Chow Train was a vision of Cheever’s as a part of a bigger picture and mission.
“It was my idea to take this food truck, and this was before, when it was just an idea in my head, to take it around to the poorest cities in every state in the country and kind of be a train,” explained Cheever. “I just envisioned someday, hopefully being in the next couple of years, to be able to take the train, whether I’m in the lead train or the caboose, and have a bunch of non-profits join me across country and go into these poor communities and connect with farmers and other groups and really continue the train and educate people about what they can do – little or big, it doesn’t matter.”
With that mindset and intention to help and serve, the citation from the City of San Antonio is quite personal to Cheever, who is among a minority of people who see the down and out in her community as people to engage rather than to ignore and she takes what she tries to do for them very seriously.
“I’m a trained and licensed chef, I have a food safety manager’s certificate, and four of my volunteers have a food safety handlers certificate. I’m obsessed with food safety because the last people I would want to hurt are the people who are most vulnerable,” pointed out Cheever. “In eight years we haven’t had any problems, which I can’t say for other restaurants and other shelters in town. If they try to take the Chow Train off the street, then people are going to go to dumpsters, so I don’t think that’s very safe. I’m not doing anything differently then Dominoes Pizza or anybody else. The food comes off of a licensed commercial kitchen on wheels or sometimes from a licensed church kitchen and goes directly into pretty high end, expensive catering equipment that makes sure it stays hot and I wouldn’t do anything less. I’m really focused on the issue of food safety.”
Obsessed with safety, educating people about homelessness and treating all people with care and dignity, Cheever and The Chow Train also make sure to also remember man’s best friend. Noticing that some of her guests were feeding their food to their pets, a donor suggested that they also provide dog food, to prevent people from having to cut down their food supply and to also make sure their dogs were being taken care of as well.
Handing out hot meals every Tuesday, The Chow Train sees anywhere from 40 to 125 people a week. On top of the continued work inside San Antonio, Cheever and company are on call when needed in times of disaster, having taken part in the relief efforts during the wildfires in Bastrop, Texas, Hurricane Isaac in La Place, Louisiana, and after Super Storm Sandy in Brooklyn, New York.
“I talk to people who say I can never do what you do and I say, look, I started out small and I started out just pulling over on the side and giving out little cans of food or sandwiches or bottles of water. You know, everyone can do something. I think as a community that’s what we need to do and people are doing it,” expressed Cheever. “It’s just paying it forward, little simple acts of kindness.”
While acknowledging her strong drive to help and make a difference, Cheever is quick to point out that what she does isn’t anything anyone else couldn’t do and encourages others to do their part, no matter how small. Asked many times whether she plans on adding trucks to different cities and expand her reach, Cheever maintains that, at this moment, all her focus remains on San Antonio and fighting City Hall. Though she does hope to add to the train at some point, her first point of contention is making sure that helping others won’t ever be labeled as a crime, that those of us in a position to help do, and without the fear of being ticketed and more importantly without judgment.
“Just to know that you care. Just a smile and an acknowledgement that I see you and I’m hoping for you, I’m praying for you and not in a condescending manner, but just, I see you, you’re not invisible to me and you matter,” insisted Cheever. “The people that live on the street have been kicked down and kicked every other day of the week and by God on Tuesday The Chow Train is there to give them a hot plate of food and give smiles and we’re also big into hugging too, we’re a full service.”
Since this article was written, whether due to the nearly 66,000 petitioners on Change.org or the ever-growing media attention to the matter, The City of San Antonio dismissed the charges against Cheever and the Chow Train. This however, has not stopped Cheever, who attended a summit on July 28 between city officials and organizations involved with feeding the homeless where she submitted plans for a new ordinance that would exempt Good Samaritans who want to feed the homeless. Her fight continues and will no doubt endure, until she sees a change made for the better.