Yelitza Castro says homeless men were at first wary when she pulled up along side them in a big white SUV and began promising free meals to any who’d get in the vehicle and go for a short ride.
It’s not unheard of for groups to give food to Charlotte’s homeless on weekends, but this was different: An immigrant woman offering fancy Venezuelan food to African-American men more accustomed to getting hot dogs and burgers on paper plates.
And she had her little girl in the car, too.
“Nobody would come,” says Castro, 41, a native of Caracas, Venezuela. “The men were afraid of my food, that it would not be ‘normal.’ ”
Her daughter Barbara, who was then 11, was just as baffled as the homeless guys. Not only was her mother cooking all the food herself, but she was paying for it out of her own pocket. “I kept thinking: ‘Mom, this is crazy. Why are we doing this?’ ” she says.
But Castro would not take “no” for an answer.
If the homeless weren’t coming to her, she’d bring her food to them. “I packed it up, took it to the shelter and gave it away in the parking lot,” she recalls.
That’s all it took.
Three years later, her twice-monthly Latino buffets attract as many as 180 homeless men to the Camino Community Center in north Charlotte. Sponsors like StoneBridge Church have stepped up to cover the cost and they’re also sending volunteers to help with the work. All this, because an immigrant housekeeper felt she owed Charlotte a debt that had to be repaid.
Castro’s immigrant tale starts with a romantic love story that does not end happily.
The bride-to-be moved from South America to Charlotte in 2001, to reunite with her boyfriend of three years. But the couple got into a fierce argument not long after her arrival and Castro was unceremoniously escorted to the street, out of his family’s house.
“I had been in Charlotte just 15 days and I was homeless,” says Castro, who was 29 at the time. “I had nothing but my suitcases.”
She couldn’t have imagined a worse predicament
But in the weeks that followed, Castro says she experienced one act of kindness after another, starting with a pastor who let her move in with his family for a month.
She found a job in a Cuban restaurant, began working 16 hours a day, and saved every penny to pay the expenses required for her daughter Barbara to come to the United States, too.
Eventually a Charlotte family hired her as its full-time housekeeper and Castro says she eased into the role of “a single mother and independent woman.”
Her homeless meals cost an average of $130, an expense Castro says she shares with several sponsors, including Camino Church and an employees group at Duke Energy. Her goal is to eventually start a soup kitchen, not just for the homeless but for the working poor who occasionally can’t make ends meet.
Castro admits she asks herself sometimes why she didn’t go back to South America after breaking up with her “one true love” in 2001.
The mother of two has yet to come up with an answer, but she can’t deny good things are happening for her in Charlotte.
Maybe this is her American Dream, she thinks.
From homeless to housed. From hopeless to giving hope.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Saturday and the kitchen at Camino Church is crowded, hot and heavy with the scent of garlic and onions.
Castro, who has an infectious laugh, is at the stove, stirring a pot of boiling rice the size of a car tire. Around her, 14-year-old Barbara and four other women are telling jokes in Spanish as they open cans and chop peppers.
Today’s recipes are variations of the Dutch-Hispanic food Castro cooked while working in a restaurant on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where she lived for the 14 years prior to coming to North Carolina.
Rice, beans, grilled chicken, lots of sauces, and lots more cilantro.
“We turn everything Spanish with cilantro,” jokes Diana Agudelo, pointing out they even put cilantro, garlic and onions in the mayonnaise.
Cooking starts three hours ahead of time and the women always gamble on how many will show up, knowing attendance falls the week after homeless men receive their benefit and disability checks.
Most are from the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, Castro says. However, she prides herself on also helping the ones who are a little rougher around the edges, sleeping in abandoned buildings or in camps around the city.
Nicholas Moore says that’s a big reason his men’s group MANdate Ministries volunteered earlier this year to help with the meals. The men’s group handles transportation, driving a van around uptown in search of homeless men who will accept a free meal and fellowship.
“All these women were picking up homeless men in their own vehicles and we felt a man’s presence was necessary for safety reasons,” says Moore, who learned of the meals from a MANdate member who knows Castro.
“We picked up one today lying on Statesville Avenue in the grass. We see them high and hung over and I’ve had them throw up in the van.”
He admires Castro’s approach, which he says is nonjudgmental and doesn’t “ram the Bible down anybody’s throat.”
“The homeless get hugged and they get a home-cooked meal,” he says, “and we pray with the ones that want to get back with their wife and kids, or turn their life around.”
If you want honesty, serve your cooking to a homeless guy.
Castro can spend hours making sure her rice is fluffy and her pindakaas sauce has just the right mix of peanut butter and honey, and some homeless guy will quickly put things in perspective.
“Ain’t you got no barbecue sauce or something,” yells Bobby Cloud, 54, as he sits amid the other homeless at a table.
Seven pieces of grilled chicken later, he’s still asking.
“Yeah, seven pieces and I ain’t done yet,” he says. “I’m not leaving until there’s none left.”
Willie Davis, 48, says he’s among Castro’s biggest fans, but was worried the first time he was invited to one of the suppers.
“It struck me as odd that a Mexican lady was trying to get people to come eat her food,” he recalls. “I kept thinking: ‘What am I going to be eating?’ But she’s serious about what she’s doing.”
And it’s not just the cooking they like, says Robert Harden, 44, who worked in real estate investment before losing his job in the recession. He says Castro and her friends share the tables with the men, ask about their lives and then sit quietly and listen.
That makes a man feel good no matter how bad his luck is, Harden says.
“They (immigrants) know about hard times ’cause they been through it,” he says. “They can feel what we’re going through. You see it in their eyes.”
Castro did not grow up poor, but her life in Venezuela was complicated. Her mother was only 15 when Castro was born, so she was raised by her grandparents.
Rusty Price is the pastor who took in Castro for a month – after knowing her for less than a week – and he describes her as “tenacious.”
His Camino Church is the host site of her suppers, which he says are an example of how Charlotte Latinos are working behind the scenes for people who are in need.
“She’s not an anomaly, but she stands out right now because there is such a gulf between mainstream Charlotte and this subculture of people that is the Hispanic community,” he says.
Other Latinos in his congregation have started a food pantry and health clinic for the poor.
Many first-generation immigrants give back within their own communities. Castro, however, is reaching out to a largely African American group. This includes not only meals every other Saturday, but elaborate suppers on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“It’s understandable that first-generation immigrants would not reach across racial or cultural lines due to language barriers,” says Brent Jones, whose StoneBridge Church supplies money and volunteers to Castro’s effort. “They come to a new country and it’s a matter of survival to help like-minded people with the same life experiences.”
It’s also a fact that some nonprofits have rules against helping undocumented immigrants, and they are often the ones who are in greatest need.
So why is Castro doing things differently?
“I think she wants to serve the poorest of the poor,” says Jones, “and in this country, that’s the homeless.”
Bobby Cloud never got his barbecue sauce, but he heads out of the supper with a plate of leftovers to take back with him to the men’s shelter.
He also got a free suit from the Camino thrift store, which he swears he’ll wear to church the next day.
The only thing he needs now is a prayer, he tells Castro and her friends.
The group of 10 forms a circle, holding hands and bowing their heads.
“I pray that I keep my job,” Cloud says. “I pray that I stop drinking and I pray for everything else I’m too embarrassed to say out loud.”
Castro and her friends continue praying in Spanish for a minute after he stops speaking.
Then Cloud heads for the door with his bags of food and free suit.
“I hate that I’m leaving y’all with leftovers,” he tells the women. “Put it in the freezer and I’ll take it all off your hands the next time.”
Castro grins and waves goodbye.
There will always be days she’ll ask herself why she didn’t go back to South America back in 2001.
But this isn’t one of them.