Helping the homeless makes you ‘change outlook on life’

As holiday dinners are planned for warm family gatherings, a number of Northern Kentucky residents are thinking about those living behind big box stores, camping in the woods, or spending the night in their cars.

The surge in unsheltered people of late can be attributed to rent increases, says Beth Kamradt, who runs Loaves and Fishes with her son Matthew. The independent group helps unsheltered people in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

The retired teacher used to work with Boone County students creating food bags, hygiene kits and survival kits. For about 18 years, the Kamradts and a few friends have taken supplies around Florence, Covington, and Cincinnati—wherever they see people living on the street. Many more work with Loaves and Fishes to collect and sort donations.

As individuals or in small groups, their work supplements that of Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky and Welcome House, the region’s shelters for homeless people. From students to retirees, they gather things determined to be most needed. It’s a fairly long list, actually, that includes protein sources like Vienna sausages, and peanut butter, bed rolls, and toothpaste. Once packaged, the most experienced volunteers go on runs to hand out items.

“The benefit of our group is that we do outreach,” Kamradt says of Loaves and Fishes. “We go looking for and find the folks who are unsheltered on the street and not in one of the shelters. We take them all the things they need to survive packaged up in ways they can carry.”

One of her students was Sean Surber, who was inspired in the sixth grade by making bed rolls for the homeless. “I just was really intrigued by it,” Sean says. “And I really wanted to help.”

Now a sophomore at Conner High School, Sean is planning an Eagle Scout project focused on bedding, winter clothing, and hygiene items. He’s drawing up plans and by fall 2023 will carry out the project with his troop.

Donna Kramer has been collecting items for Loaves and Fishes for a couple of years. The Campbell County nurse looks for wearable shoes at flea markets, and picks up tuna packs, hats, mittens, and scarves throughout the year.

Helping the homeless has become a family project, and Kramer is from a big family. They have committed to preparing Christmas packages – everything from food and clothing to lip moisturizers and pens – and will have dozens of relatives over for a day of sorting and packing.

“I think most people want to help those in need, but you don’t quite know how to go about it or where the greatest need is,” Kramer says. “And I certainly knew that over the years my perceptions of the homeless have changed. When I was young, I often thought (homelessness) was a choice and they’ve made their choices. I mean, I just was kind of naïve.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that (living on the streets) is a tough road. It’s a hard life and nobody wants to be there,” Kramer says.

Helping Hands for the Homeless "survival kits". L to R: Jean Adkins, Jodi Petersime, Declan Sefton, and Mason Heitman.A group called Helping Hands for the Homeless was started at Conner High School. Adviser Jodi Petersime, a longtime Loaves and Fishes volunteer, and her students packed 75 food bags for Kamradt to distribute as the temperature dropped in November. “That came from people just donating, throwing a little extra in their cart (at the supermarket),” Petersime says.

The Conner instructional coach says the right items will appear on her front porch or turn up in Kamradt’s collection in the back of her SUV. On their runs to give out food and survival kits, they listen for what else is needed.

“One man said, ‘You know, I could have a job, but I have to have their work boots,’” Petersime recalls. And Kamradt asked him, “What size?” A little rustling through extra items in her van, and she found the boots.

“It's really about caring, taking care of people,” Petersime says. “They're in situations for whatever reason they're in, at that point. They just need a little help.”

Those inspired to help their most vulnerable neighbors watch the Loaves and Fishes Facebook group to see what items are needed.

Others are on a waiting list to go on runs with writer Bill Croyle whose group Walk the Mile distributes meals and cold-weather wear to the homeless.

Croyle started giving out meals while visiting relatives one Thanksgiving in Cleveland. The idea had been percolating for a while, so after two big family meals and nothing on his schedule, Croyle went shopping for food. His family gave out 35 brown bag meals in two minutes.

Bill Croyle, right, meets with Robert who leans against his home in July. Skyrocketing prices kept him from renting a house, so he was living in his truck. Croyle runs Walk the Mile, a family charity.
In Cincinnati, Croyle and his wife, Deb, noticed the many homeless people living along Third Street, around 2017. He started a nonprofit group and has gone on food runs about every six weeks. “A lot of times now we just drive around and actually keep meals and clothing in our car. So, when we see somebody off a highway exit or whatever, we’ve got something for them,” says Croyle, who wrote about education for The Cincinnati Enquirer before becoming a full-time author.

Friends ask if he plans to write about the stories he hears from the homeless. “I don’t know that I would do that,” Croyle says. “The homeless are exposed a little too much. I mean, when we meet with them and see them and hear their stories, to me that’s just a personal thing between the two of us. But it’s impacted me as a person. It really changes your outlook on daily life.”

Croyle and his wife went to Chicago last May for their 30th anniversary. “And we spent one afternoon handing out meals along the Magnificent Mile and other parts of downtown Chicago,” he says.

“It’s not work. I mean, we thoroughly enjoy it. We enjoyed meeting the people and hearing their stories.”

How you can help

Loaves and Fishes: The full title is “Loaves and Fishes 4 the Unsheltered Homeless in NKY & Cincinnati.” Find them on Facebook at this link.

Walk the Mile Inc.: This group is most easily contacted via Facebook. Find them at this link.

Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky: The shelter, in its first year at a new location, 436 West 13th Street, Covington, has a need for volunteers. You can cook meals or come by to help keep the shelter in good working order. Check out opportunities at the website.

Welcome House: The shelter, located at 205 West Pike Street, Covington, needs volunteers to prepare meals, sort donations, or assist in shelter activities. Check out opportunities here

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Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include reading, photography, watching streaming TV, including "Succession" and "Andor," and playing Alphabet Game on Zoom with five siblings across the globe.