No one pays more attention to the streets on a Saturday night than Bishop. He’s looking for people sleeping on sidewalks, standing on corners, trying to stay warm on bus-stop benches.
“This city is broken, this city is in trouble,” he said. He’s talking about the growing number of homeless persons he feeds every weekend.
It’s just after 8:30 p.m. when Doug “Bishop” Anaya rides his rumbling motorcycle into the parking lot of a McDonalds in downtown Albuquerque, followed by other bike-riding members of the Hellfighters Ministry Soul Snatchers Unit. Bishop is is their president
The dark and empty parking lot jolts to life. The bikes are followed by vans full of food and cars full of families. They are greeted by some of the city’s most talked about residents – the homeless.
Hillbilly, (the only name he’d give) who came to Albuquerque from Indiana two-and-a-half years ago, relies on the Hellfighters for more than just a few meals a week. He gives them credit for keeping his service dog, Nivea, healthy and fed.
“She wouldn’t look as good as she does” he said. “She’s two and a half years old and I never once bought dog food. Bless these guys’ hearts right here, they’ve been the ones feeding this dog for two years.”
Hillbilly is just one of the more than 3,000 people on the streets that the Hellfighters help every year. They call their operation Mercy After Dark.
They have four vans – packed to the brim – that head out on four routes every weekend. No matter how cold it is, how tired they are, or how few people are out on the streets that night, they’ve been out every Saturday night for almost seven years.
The group is a Christian ministry, and they’ll help anyone.
“We are not bible thumpers, we are not here to tell people that they are going to hell if they don’t change their ways,” said Andre “180” Kemmerer, Sergeant at Arms. “A lot of these folks, they’re sleeping on a sidewalk in the middle of February, they’re already in hell as far as they’re concerned. We’re here to uplift and shine a light.”
After a quick safety briefing for new members of the ministry and volunteers, each van is assigned a route, and the caravans start to take off.
The bikes go out first. Then the vans follow. Volunteers in cars and the trucks follows the vans.
The Central Avenue route is one of the busiest, and by the first stop – another McDonalds at the Corner of Central Avenue and Wyoming Boulevard – there’s already a small crowd waiting.
The bikes pull into the parking lot revving their engines with sharp cracks that break the otherwise silent night.
“The reason we rev our engines like that, it’s not to see who’s is the loudest,” Zak “Chaos” Kindle jokes, “but because we have people who come from all around this area (for help), and the sound of the bikes lets them know we’re here.”
The gang quickly gets to work, two to three members and volunteers work out of the back of the van handing out clothing items, blankets and more. More members work out of the side, pouring hot soup into styrofoam cups, and topping them off with a spoon stuck through a bread roll. There is also hot chocolate, and they hand out prepared sack lunches in grocery bags.
When they arrive at each stop, the members ask anyone who comes to the van what they need. On February 2, with the temperature below freezing, the popular request was gloves. They were out. “Gloves” was added to a list taped inside a window at the back of the van – a list of things the Hellfighters need.
“Gloves is something that we typically get. We do run out quick but we what we would need the most would be jeans, socks, underwear for men and women… and blankets,” Anaya said.
Last winter, another motorcycle club ran a coat drive for the Hellfighters, bringing in more than 900 winter coats.
All the clothing is donated, and Anaya said if anyone wanted to make a donation, just reach out to the group on facebook.
He’s trying to work out a deal with hotels in the city, so they can donate their old blankets.
While fighting against the cold is a challenge for both bikers and the homeless, Anaya said it’s almost fun (for him). The hardest part of the job, he said, are the sad stories.
He tells one that has stuck with with him for years, about a homeless man called Nacho.
“I just really really loved this guy. He just had a smile on his face every time,” Anaya said, “Every time that we would come out he would just pray for us. There were times when he would save up a little bit of money and he would give us tithes to the ministry, he said ‘I wanna give back, I wanna help,’ but he was still out here. One of the saddest times for me was to come out here and look for him and have someone tell me ‘they killed him’,”he said (referring to others who were living on the street).
Anaya and the Hellfighters have witnessed more sad stories that they can recount – from overdoses, to seizures, to families left to fend for themselves and women in labor on the street.
But they don’t give up. Anaya hopes to get a building soon, something he can turn into a one-stop-shop and sober house.
“What I would do is open up an emergency shelter or something just to have guys come in and get out of the cold,” Anaya said.
And he’d go further if he could. “What I would like to do is to teach these guys some trades, to be able to set them up with work,” he said. “I think a lot of these guys really do need help. They just need a hand up instead of a hand out.”
To make a donation or volunteer with the group, contact them through their facebook page.
Celia Raney is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be contacted on Twitter @Celia_Raney