One day in January, Karin Elliott decided to make a couple of pots of tortilla soup and take them to Santa Rita Park to feed the homeless.
"I just opened the tailgate of my car, and I yelled, 'Are you hungry? I have food,' and they just came," Elliott says.
The Tucson woman now serves dinner—often by herself—every Saturday and Monday night, and she recently surpassed 1,000 meals, she says.
"That blows me away," Elliott says.
On this July evening, in the Santa Rita Park parking lot at 22nd Street and Third Avenue, Elliott stands in the back of her SUV, using the trunk space as a makeshift kitchen, and serves her latest creation from a couple of large pots. Elliott turned 40 pounds of potatoes into a salad with chopped eggs and kielbasa sausage. In another pot are string beans that Elliott cooked all day with bacon. In a cooler is a case of bottled water.
In line stand 12 men—all different ages, all different races, all homeless. While Elliott dishes out the string beans, Carlos stands to her right, serving potato salad.
Carlos, who is homeless, says he'd rather not share his last name. Elliott says he started helping last month when a couple of other homeless men harassed her.
"The first time I did this, someone came with me, but I've been by myself since. I know I'm safe. I'm protected," Elliott says, smiling at Carlos. "I feel safe. I really do. And now I have a homeless friend who is my bodyguard."
While the food is served, Elliott chats with a few people she's gotten to know in the past seven months. She asks one man about the dog bite on his leg; she asks another about his wife, who is waiting under a tree for the second plate he's carrying for her.
The number of people she feeds varies from more than 20 to as few as five. On a folder, she keeps track of every meal, everything she buys, all the food and monetary donations she receives, and how many plates she uses.
"When I started this, I'd often cook too much food. I was only planning on going once a week, but when I had extra food, I realized I could to go more than once. I'm still figuring out the measurements," Elliott says.
Elliott was born in the former East Germany and escaped with her mother on her 8th birthday. She married a U.S. soldier and moved to the United States; they divorced, and she says she raised her son and daughter largely on her own. After working four jobs, Elliott says, she started a metaphysical bookstore in the 1980s by using two credit cards.
Seeing the movie Dances With Wolves changed her life, Elliott says; she became interested in Native American culture and spirituality. In 1992, she opened Rainbow Moods, a Native American-themed shop next to her bookstore. But when Elliott's son, Scott, died in 1999, Elliott says she decided it was time to close her stores and emotionally recover.
"The business was struggling already. With Barnes and Noble in town, it was a different time. I was the third independent bookstore to go under. If Scott hadn't died, I probably would have kept going, but I just needed to be whole. I needed a timeout," Elliott says.
Elliott decided to start feeding the homeless because of a former Rainbow Moods customer, a Navajo man who came in monthly to buy traditional music.
"I started cooking for him every Friday, or we'd go to a drumming circle together. I made Christmas for his sister and her family," Elliott says.
Last December, the Native American man she befriended showed up at her house—with police, who had picked him up off the streets. "When he came to the door ... I didn't recognize him, because he was so bloated with alcohol," Elliott says.
After she helped him contact his sister, they left. Elliott says she started to drive around looking for him, with food packed in her car. She knew homeless people often hung out at Santa Rita Park.
"I thought to myself, 'I'll look for him, give him food, and just cook a little more on the weekend.' But I never did find him," Elliott says. "I decided to start helping the people I saw in the park."
In April, Elliott decided to start blogging about her experiences (karin-feedingthehomeless.blogspot.com), chronicling the people she meets and thanking the people who help with donations.
"I've been blogging about this old man who was living in his Cadillac," Elliott says. "The edema in his feet made it difficult for him to walk. There are other old people here. There's an old man living in the park with his wife, who has Alzheimer's."
After Elliott finishes at Santa Rita, she drives west down 22nd Street to Santa Rosa Park with Carlos to feed a smaller group of homeless people she discovered while she was looking for her Native American friend.
She and Carlos sit at a concrete table with anyone else who shows up for dinner.
"I thought she was amazing," Carlos says when asked about Elliott. "There are some weird people here, but that doesn't mean the whole group is bad."
Elliott, who is in her mid-60s, admits that it is getting harder serve the meals. She runs a small mail-order business out of her home—but she is also on food stamps.
"I've been able to keep doing this because of good friends who help me," Elliott says.
Many of her friends give her donations which she uses to buy food, paper plates and napkins. Another friend in Oregon sends $25 monthly to buy water.
"I think we've become desensitized to the homeless. I guess I'm lucky to know some great people. I still think America is the land of opportunity. It's true: In Germany, I couldn't have started the bookstore on two credit cards. But we're so wrapped up in ourselves."
Making the food every week is also a struggle. Seven months of chopping and carrying pots has caused problems with her upper arms.
"I'm hoping to find some people out there who want to help. I've enjoyed this. It really is a gift from my heart, but I just don't know if I can continue doing this on my own."