The middle of the street isn't the best place to have a conversation.
Mel Briles and Scotty McDuff don't seem to be thinking about that on this foggy, frigid day in early December. They're walking in downtown Atlantic, Iowa, and talking about their passion: helping the homeless in Omaha, 65 miles to the west.
A woman driving a minivan stops when she sees Mel and Scotty, and the pair walk up to her window.
She has some sleeping bags. You can come get them whenever it's convenient, she says.
They hear similar things all over town. The senior citizen center has bags of clothes. The 1st Assembly of God has an overflowing box of gloves. A store has slightly used shoes.
Mel, Scotty and Mel's wife, De, are delighted. There's never enough for their friends on the streets.
Since May, the semiretired threesome and other volunteers they recruit have driven to Omaha nearly every Friday, feeding the homeless, giving out clothes, offering hugs. They especially have a mission to help those who, for whatever reason, don't seek shelter, even from the most severe cold.
Residents in Atlantic have embraced the effort, though they rarely see a homeless person in their southwest Iowa town of 7,000.
“It has caught fire, for sure,” said Lee Havemeier, youth pastor at 1st Assembly of God.
Until it got brutally cold, the Atlantic contingent cooked pancakes on a propane-fueled grill outside the Siena Francis House near 17th and Nicholas Streets, serving a few hundred men every week. They set up tables piled with coats, pants, socks, shoes and other items free for the taking.
For now, they serve coffee and pass out clothing and other items inside the shelter each week. Shelter personnel said the volunteers can return outside when it's warmer.
When they finish there, they hop in their vans, armed with warm clothes and bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
They caravan over to 16th and Yates Streets, where four men huddle around a fire in a barrel.
They head to the river near the South Omaha rail yards, where they climb a steep and slick snow-covered bank and slide down another to reach a hardscrabble camp in the woods.
They head over to Council Bluffs, where they heard that some people were camping near the trail linked to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
Mel, the McDuffs and the other volunteers find it hard to say why they do it, though as Christians they believe that they're called to be Christ on Earth. Their grass-roots ministry isn't connected to any religious denomination (the Briles and McDuff families belong to the Assembly of God) or service organization.
“If you're a Baptist, it's a Baptist ministry,” said Scotty, a former over-the-road trucker and drywaller who now drives a truck part time. “If you're a Methodist, it's a Methodist ministry. If you're a Catholic, it's a Catholic ministry. There's a million denominations and one God.”
They don't proselytize. The men and women they help don't have to listen to a Gospel message before they get food and clothing.
The group has Bibles, but they give them only to those who seem receptive. They used to pray before serving food, but they don't do that anymore.
Some who help the homeless “feel we're doing it wrong,” De said. “We feel we're doing it the way we should be. You do what's in your heart.”
The effort started with Scotty, who came to Omaha seeking a place to serve food to the homeless. He wanted to do more than just assist in a shelter food line. The Siena Francis House agreed to let Scotty and his crowd set up in its courtyard.
Scotty long has had an affinity for the less fortunate. When he was an over-the-road trucker, he picked up hitchhikers.
Mel, who used to drive for the same company, said Scotty would buy dinner and take it to homeless men in Miami. “Soon guys would be knocking on trucks, looking for Scotty.”
Scotty said he learned from his grandmother, who fed the hungry in the 1950s and 1960s.
Men who rode freight trains would write her address and the message “Go here for food” at a stop in Des Moines. That brought lots of transients to her door.
Scotty knew Mel and De from church, but not well. That changed after he invited them to help in Omaha one Friday. Now, Mel said, Scotty is his best friend.
Each has a role in the project. Mel, a talkative guy with more than 1,600 Facebook friends, drums up support in the community and keeps meticulous books. Atlantic residents donate money in addition to material goods. Mel, De and Scotty also use some of their own funds.
Though they don't have a board or tax-free nonprofit status, their financial records are transparent.
“There is great accountability,” said Havemeier. “That gives us peace of mind about helping.”
Scotty, more taciturn than Mel, secured an old school building in nearby Cumberland to store and sort items.
De is the den mother. She's the one with the hugs, the one who fusses at homeless folks to eat more, drink some hot coffee, take a pair of warm socks.
As the crew started to clean up after a recent pancake morning, she walked the streets around the shelter, making sure everyone she saw had a chance to eat.
“She's my best friend,” said Tyrone Titsworth, who showed up to eat that day. He had gotten a job cleaning at a fast-food restaurant and had an apartment, and De celebrated his success.
“You're a good lady,” he told her. “You take care of us.”
“You're a good man,” she replied.
The Atlantic people say their goal is to establish relationships with the homeless people they meet. They're more than just statistics, more than the guy you turn away from on the street.
At the shelter or near the river, they know the names of the people they serve. They talk in worried tones about those they haven't seen for a while, especially when it's bitterly cold.
A couple of formerly homeless people often help. Deanna Roark recently moved to Atlantic to live with her fiance. She had been staying in her car in Kansas City, Kan., after losing her job because of a drug and alcohol problem. She went through rehab and said she had been clean and sober since February.
She met De at church, “and we clicked,” she said.
Deanna hopes she's an inspiration for the people she helps. “I can come down here and pay it back,” she said. “Look at me. It can be done.”
Tomi Dunn, who spent 27 years living along a river in Louisiana, navigates the woods when the group visits the riverfront here.
On one recent occasion, when the volunteers couldn't find a camp they knew existed, Tomi walked up and down the levee, yelling names. A couple barely out of their teens eventually emerged for sandwiches and warm coveralls.
Of course, the Atlantic residents aren't the only people who feed the homeless.
Mel and Scotty said they've seen a man hand out hot dogs during the summer across from the Siena Francis House. Groups occasionally provide sandwiches for people on the Gene Leahy Mall.
These “street feeders” have their place among those who want to ease suffering, said Ann Smolsky, program coordinator for the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless. But the difference between them and teams from shelters, she said, is that the goal of those who work with the homeless every day is to transition people into a permanent and safe housing environment.
“My strong support is to get them off the street, rather than just bringing them what they need right now,” she said.
That's optimum, but many times, it's a tough sell.
The Atlantic group has made several visits to a couple who live next to the river, sleeping in a tent made from a plastic tarp. They have two dogs to keep them warm, and they don't want to go to a shelter partly because they couldn't bring their animals. It also would be hard to find transitional housing that allows pets.
Before a recent visit to the couple, Mel, Scotty, De and Tomi took up an impromptu collection for dog food. They delivered the cash with warm embraces and questions about the couple's well-being.
The group also has supplied big steel burn barrels to several camps.
Some people have warned the Atlantic group to avoid the camps because they're dangerous, maybe even the site of meth labs. But Mel, Scotty, De and the others said they've never seen evidence of drug manufacturing, and they're undeterred.
Anyone could end up homeless, they said. Some of the people they see are retirees who worked all their lives but receive little Social Security and no pensions.
Those who judge don't know the stories behind the poverty, De said.
Mel, Scotty and De often have wondered if they'll have enough funding to keep going week to week.
Somehow, they always do.
“We've never been without, but we've been close,” Mel said. “The Lord keeps blessing us.”
So they do their best to bless others.
They plan to start visiting the riverfront camps more than just on Fridays, possibly three times a week. They recently started taking canned food with pop tops. They also want to start cooking hot dogs on campfires to provide a hot meal.
It's what the Bible says to do, they say.
“It's Scriptural — 'I was hungry and you fed me.' ” Scotty said. “Part of your salvation is loving your neighbor as yourself. We're planning on doing this till we die.”