Pastor Johns and sons spent Thanksgiving night under a viaduct

Nov 29, 2019

Thanksgiving night, the Rev. Eric Johns and his two sons - Alexander, 16, and Nathaniel, 15, - slept under the viaduct that carries the I-190 over Exchange Street, across from the downtown Amtrak station.

"There's a very steep incline to get up here, but once you get up here there's a little bit of a narrow flat surface where we have just enough room to roll out a sleeping bag and lay down for the night," said Johns. "One reason for choosing this is you stay out of the rain and the elements pretty much, and if you can stay dry you can can warm."

Nathaniel Johns on the ledge where he slept Thanksgiving night.
Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News

Johns is the pastor at the Buffalo Dream Center and in his 21st year of this holiday mission, to bring awareness to those without a permanent home. On Wednesday, he marked a milestone: his 100th day of homelessness.

He said the homeless population has changed over the years.

"When I first started this two decades ago, almost every guy I talked to on the street was a veteran and now it's hard to find one, so that's been great. A lot of them have been getting into housing," the pastor said. "I think one of the best things that has happened is agencies working together, now more than ever before. At the Dream Center we work with agencies like Buffalo City Mission, Hearts for the Homeless. Different organizations that are helping the homeless are now coordinating our efforts, I think, better than ever before and that's a real good thing."

Much work still needs to be done, however.

"We see more women on the streets than ever before. When I first started this, it was predominantly men," he said. "There's children that maybe they're not necessarily homeless, but eat in a soup kitchen. There's a variety of people: men, women, children, families. So you definitely have the working poor that are taking advantage of some of the services that sterotypically you would think would just be for a homeless person."

The family carries their belongings on their back and walk the streets by day or stop in at a local coffee shop or the bus station.
Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News

Johns is nearing the end of his annual week of living with Buffalo's homeless. This year, his two sons have joined him for the entire week, as they prepare to take over the annual mission someday. Alexander Johns said he has never had a traditional Thanksgiving.

"We go to a soup kitchen and have that Thanksgiving dinner, and as a family we've always done that ever since I was born and I love it," he said. "And then we hand out turkey dinners all around Buffalo. We actually handed out 250 turkey dinners Thanksgiving this year. Some people are like, 'Oh, what about the turkey dinner?' It's really not about the turkey dinner. It's about showing love and showing what you're thankful for and helping others."

"This is my first year doing the whole week. I've done it before, but this is a full week. I didn't take a break," said Nathaniel Johns. "I'm learning more and more from my Dad, because me and my brother are gonna take it over when he gets a little too old. So when he can't do it anymore, we're gonna take it over for him. And we just learned a lot. I realized this year we've connected with these homeless guys more than I ever have before, sitting down, talking with them, learning more about them. It's awesome."