Local Outreach “Hearts for the Homeless” Ministry Feeds the Homeless
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
In November of 2015, Marie Dugan and her husband Scott felt a pull to do something to make the world a better place. They began volunteering at Wheeler Mission.
“Though God put it on our hearts to do something to help, I heard him say, ‘Go to the source,’” Dugan says. “The first time we went out, we asked God to take us where he wanted us to go.”
The couple pulled up to a building and followed a trail that led straight to a homeless camp.
“A great big, burly, bearded man came out and did not seem happy we were there,” Dugan recalls. By the time the couple left the camp, however, the man reached out for a hug.
“It’s hard to explain, but my heart changed in that moment,” Dugan says. “I knew that’s what I was meant to do.”
That’s how Hearts for the Homeless got started. The street outreach ministry became a 501(c)(3) organization in February of 2017. Dugan posted to Facebook and people started donating coats and blankets. The pair went every week to camps, delivering food, clothing, hugs and hope. Unlike many outreaches, they don’t park and expect the homeless to come to them.
“I wanted to see where they were living and talk to them where they felt comfortable,” says Dugan, who notes that their purpose is to befriend, which they do by sharing food. “It’s the heartbeat of our Saturdays. We want to build relationships.”
These people are often hungry not just for sustenance, but also for interaction.
“Certain people will gravitate to specific people on our team,” Dugan says. “It feels good when people’s faces light up when they see you.”
Scott was diagnosed with melanoma in 2018 and passed away in February of 2019. Dugan took a yearlong hiatus from the outreach to grieve. When she started volunteering again, she found the experience healing. She also met a host of new characters, like a young girl who would stand in the background cursing God, and shouting at Dugan and her crew that she hoped they all went to hell.
“We’re not faith-based but we share the Gospel wherever we go,” Dugan says. “We don’t push it on them, but if they ask, we’ll pray for them.”
One day this foul-mouthed girl found her way into Dugan’s prayer circle. Before long, she was attending church services with Dugan. Ultimately, she accepted the Lord and was baptized on her birthday. Others were left dumbfounded by the transformation and asked Dugan what she had said to turn the girl around.
“I didn’t say anything,” Dugan says. “God told me to love her, so I did.”
Ashley Brackin began volunteering with Hearts for the Homeless in February of 2021. The fact that she started just a few days after Valentine’s Day seemed serendipitous, because she instantly found a love for the team and for the friends they serve. Prior to joining Hearts for the Homeless, Brackin was focused on mission ministries, primarily in Africa.
“Because of that focus, I was missing the needs right here at home,” she says. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, caused her to re-evaluate her plans. From the first Saturday she joined the ministry, she felt a strong sense of belonging.
“I knew I had to go again,” she says. “Hearts for the Homeless is so much more than the food being served. It’s the conversations, prayers, love and hope. We have seen some beautiful transformations I just can’t put into words.”
Dugan herself has endured a lot in life. She was abused in her younger years, became addicted to drugs, and couch-surfed at times when she didn’t have a physical address to call home.
“It’s hard for normal people to understand homelessness when they see folks standing on corners, mumbling and begging for money, but they all have stories and every single one of them is heartbreaking,” Dugan says. “The biggest misconception about homeless people is that they are where they want to be. That’s not the case. They’re there because of their past.”
For many, their issues date back to childhood. Dugan shares the story of a man who ran away when he was 6 years old. His parents beat him, his mom died, and he has been on his own ever since.
Dugan also describes a girl who was baptized on her birthday. She was placed in foster homes where she was raped and abused, so she ran away when she was 9 years old, knowing that if she stayed uncaught until the age of 18, she would never have to go back into the system. So that’s what she did.
“It’s truly about survival,” Dugan says. “They don’t know rules and they don’t know love. This is all they know.”
Because this is all many homeless people know, sometimes they’re hesitant to leave it. For instance, after the girl was baptized, Dugan invited her to stay at her house for a week. After just three days, however, she was ready to go back to the homeless camp.
Brackin wants people to understand that the homeless do not start their lives any differently than anyone else. The only difference is their journey, and much of it can’t be helped. “We could all be in the same position very easily,” she says.
Hearts for the Homeless serves people in Hendricks County and surrounding areas. The nonprofit is 90% supported by the communities in Hendricks County.
“It’s been amazing to witness,” Dugan says. “Our community is awesome.”
Dugan and her team of volunteers hand out between 45 and 70 meals per week. Sometimes these meals are bagged lunches. Other times they include a pot of spaghetti or chili. Chick-fil-A often provides them with 20 sandwiches to compensate if they run low on food.
“It’s worked out every time,” Dugan says. “We’ve never run out of food.”
They use SignUpGenius for people to sign up to provide a meal. Dugan then picks up the meals on Friday nights so they are ready to be distributed on Saturday mornings. In addition to meals, Dugan collects flashlights, batteries and hygiene products.
Dugan says one of the best ways to help someone who is homeless is to carry water, snacks and chapstick in your car to hand out. Dugan used to put bottles of water in her freezer before bedtime in the summertime, and then pass out frozen waters to people on the interstate on her way to or from work. “People loved it,” she says.
More than anything, Dugan implores people to just be kind. She mentions a homeless man she knows who is schizophrenic. Because of his erratic behavior, people assume he’s on drugs.
“I’ve seen people throw things at him and trip him,” Dugan says. “We have no idea what’s in people’s hearts and minds. We don’t know what they’ve experienced, so at least don’t be mean to them.”
As for Brackin, she says she can’t express how thankful she is to be a part of this outreach. It truly has shifted her perspective.
“I’ve found that a beautiful smile has nothing to do with straight teeth, white teeth or no teeth at all,” she says. “Their smiles come from the heart.”
Donations to Hearts for the Homeless may be sent to: P.O. Box 91, Lizton, IN 46149. For more information or to sign up to provide a meal, call 317-869-7281 or visit heartsforthehomelessindy.org.