A steady stream of people began to materialize in the parking lot of a strip mall in the King-Lincoln Bronzeville section of the city.
“What are you giving out?” someone asked.
“I have beef stroganoff and some watermelon,” Debra McCauley answered. “And water. Do you want a bottle of water?”
“Can I have another (beef stroganoff and water) for my girlfriend?” a man on a bicycle asked. He pedaled back a few minutes later. “There are four older people who want some watermelon, and they can’t get here.”
McCauley loaded him up with several slices of watermelon wrapped in foil.
“Just water please, have a blessed day,” someone else said.
It’s a Thursday evening in July, and Debra McCauley is doing what she does every Thursday: Driving around the city, with the help of a couple of friends, distributing meals to homeless people, and anyone else who’s hungry and wanders by their two-car, mobile meal station. “I know where to find them,” she said of people in need. “I know where they hang out.”
For about a year, McCauley has been preparing meals in her tiny North Side apartment, which she calls “The Storehouse,” every Wednesday, and delivering them the next day to different locations to some of the poorer pockets of the city. Her mission is to help others, even though McCauley is far from wealthy.
“She has no resources,” said Brenda Chaney, who donates food to McCauley and sometimes helps deliver meals. “But she makes this happen through the strength of her personality. People believe in her and want to help her.”
The people McCauley feeds “do not easily have their voices heard,” said Roberta Morton, who also donates food to McCauley and helps deliver meals. “She’s so dynamic and committed to this cause.”
'A life of ups and downs'
McCauley knows what it’s like not to be heard, to be invisible, and to struggle to find shelter and something to eat. “I’ve had a life that’s been a lot of ups and downs,” said McCauley, 56. The downs include a battle with addiction she has overcome, as well as being homeless four different times. Destin Thomas, one of her six children, who she’d given up for adoption years earlier, was shot and killed in 2012 by a police officer responding to a 911 call that Thomas made to report a break-in at his home. The officer mistook him for the intruder.
The first time McCauley was homeless was when she was 17 and her mother kicked her out of the house after she became pregnant. The violence of what McCauley describes as an abusive relationship led to another homeless situation. “I was lost and confused,” she said of her life.
The ups include her family, friends and church; rebuilding her life, and the joy she takes in cooking, especially for others, and preparing and serving meals to people in need. Due to a back injury, McCauley can’t work and is on disability.
“I know what it’s like to be homeless,” she said. “I have compassion for these people because we don’t know what they’ve been through or why they’re in the situation and the condition they’re in. It humbles me. And I want to give them some hope and talk to them and listen to them and give them a nice meal and some encouragement.”
'If you’re hungry, Debra will feed you'
Chaney has learned a lot about the struggles people face by helping McCauley. “Homeless people aren’t all the same; they don’t fit into any one category,” she says. “One of the really good things about Debra is she doesn’t judge people. If you’re hungry, Debra will feed you.”
McCauley walked around the King-Lincoln Bronzeville strip mall, telling people to come over to the cars where she, Chaney and Morton were distributing food. “Let your friends know,” she told someone as she handed him a container of beef stroganoff.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he answered.
A little boy approached with his mother. McCauley asked if he’d like some cookies, and the boy shyly shook his head up and down. “Do you want Oreos or chocolate chip?” she asked.
“Can I have both?” the boy asked, emboldened by the power of cookies. McCauley laughed and gave him a package of each.
A few minutes later, the three women pack up and drive off to a homeless camp beneath a bridge on Greenlawn Avenue.
This weekly mission to serve meals began in the fall of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. One of her daughters, Alicia Sanford, and fiancé, Marquan Napper, asked McCauley to help them collect and deliver food to the homeless on a monthly basis. “I liked it so much I started doing it weekly,” McCauley said. “They have their own lives and are busy, and help when they can, so I looked for some volunteers to help me out.”
Because of her lack of financial resources, McCauley needs help purchasing food. And delivering meals, because her “transportation situation is a little iffy,” Morton said. A larger kitchen would also come in handy, but these are all mere obstacles to be overcome by determination.
McCauley’s dream has always been to open her own restaurant. In a way, she has, and it’s open once a week. “I started cooking when I was 8,” she says. “I had to cook for my family. My grandmother was a great cook, and she’d put me up on a chair (by the stove) and teach me things.”
One of the dishes her grandmother taught her was chili. The recipe is top secret, but “it has to be nice and hearty, and I’m very particular about my spices,” McCauley said, adding that during the winter months she made and served chili regularly “and people started calling me the Chili Lady.”
McCauley has a Facebook page (The Storehouse…Columbus, Ohio) she uses to spread the word about what she’s doing. In addition to food, she also distributes what she calls “survival items.” This includes battery-operated lights for people who live in tents, “so they won’t have to use candles that can start a fire,” McCauley said. Other items include can openers, portable grills and sanitizers, as well as hats, coats and gloves in the winter months.
Rebuilding her life has been a long, difficult process for McCauley. “I was so tired of holding onto all that pain,” she said. “But I’m still standing, and I had to go through all that pain and all those tragedies so I could be here for someone else going through that.”
McCauley has also reconnected with her mother. “She never encouraged me growing up,” McCauley said. “But, at the beginning of this year, she said ‘I’m proud of you’ for the first time, and she gave me a hug. It felt so good I asked for another.”
Four questions with Debra McCauley
What neighborhood or town do you live in? North Side
What is a challenge you have overcome? McCauley has been homeless four times in her life.
What inspires you? “It’s a blessing to be able to help others.”
What keeps you engaged? “I remember being out there, homeless and hungry, and sleeping in abandoned houses.”