One Kentucky family of five took it upon themselves to get out and feed the homeless

Now their friends and neighbors have joined them

The man didn't necessarily look as if he belonged among the homeless and the hungry.

Then again, they sometimes don't.

Tracy (as he introduced himself) was clean, dressed in blue jeans and a white hoodie. He was tall, well-groomed and appeared to be in his late 40s.

When the Croyles met him, he was standing at the corner of Third and Elm downtown and holding a homemade sign that read "Need Help." He was hungry.

It was a nice, warm fall evening when they approached Tracy and offered him a meal. The family of five -- Bill and Debra Croyle, of Erlanger, and their three sons, Nick, Dominic and Vincent -- had spent at least one day over the previous few months preparing and personally delivering food to the homeless and hungry around Fountain Square.

The Croyle family of Erlanger -- Bill and Debra and their three sons, Nick, Dominic and Vincent -- prepare and deliver food to the homeless in Cincinnati.

The Croyles, along with a growing list of participants, have been handing out sandwiches, crackers and fruit, and the stories they've come back with are filled with humanity, humility and humor.

But then there are people like Tracy, who told them it was his first night out on the street. His story could be seen as especially disturbing, because his life, at one time, sounded comfortable. He said that once, not long ago, he was the head of a business. He said he had a wife, but that she had cancer, which soaked up a lot of money.

He said his business went sour. He said he ended up hungry and living on the street.

He thanked them for the bag of food and left them with a warning.

"This can happen to you. It can happen to anyone."

'We need to do something'

"You never really know if they're telling the truth or not," said Bill Croyle, a 49-year-old author who has now -- almost unwittingly -- become the leader of a grassroots movement to help Cincinnati's homeless and hungry. "And, yes, sometimes these people are out here because of some bad choices that they've made, but that doesn't matter. What matters is they're out here and they're hungry -- so we need to do something to help them."

It started in 2013, when Croyle -- then a coach for his son's middle school basketball team -- was searching for a service project for the young boys. He looked to his friends and neighbors, who provided several good ideas.

One of those ideas came from neighbor Bridgett Stegeman, who'd been vacationing in St. Augustine, Florida, in 2012 when she saw a family handing out lunches to the area's homeless.

"There are places that give out meals like soup kitchens and shelters, but there are reasons sometimes why people can't go," Stegeman said. "But by delivering the meals to them, we can interact with them. We can give a joke or a hug."

Croyle said he didn't use the idea for the basketball team. Instead, he decided to get his family involved. After visiting his parents in Cleveland for Thanksgiving 2013, the Croyles made sandwiches and handed them out to the homeless and hungry there. After doing it for a few more years in Cleveland, they got away from it for a while.

"There are places that give out meals like soup kitchens and shelters, but there are reasons sometimes why people can't go," said Bridgett Stegeman, a neighbor of the Croyle family. "By delivering the meals to them, we can interact with them. We can give a joke or a hug."

It wasn't until a dinner trip to The Banks this summer, when they were walking back to their car and noticed all the homeless along the street, that they thought about it again.

"We thought, ‘Why did we stop doing this?' " Croyle said. "We say that life tends to get in the way. But this is life. We decided we needed to make this a part of what we do."

They gave out their first meals in the Queen City this summer.

In July, they made 20 meals -- things like turkey sandwiches, water, chips, fruit and crackers -- which took about 30 minutes to prepare. In August, they made two trips, and passed out 24 and 40 meals, and by this time, neighbors and others were joining the group.

"When you see their faces, and you see how appreciative they are, it just makes you feel so good to do a little bit to help," said Stegeman, who has now made two trips. "It's been a total pleasure -- so rewarding."

Each month, the family and their companions travel down to Fountain Square, normally on Friday or Saturday nights. They park on Plum Street and walk to Third, passing out bags. They turn east before heading north on Race or Walnut before ending up at the Square. There, they will sit and talk, reflecting on what they've seen. They never come home with food.

And they process the stories. Sometimes, they make them laugh. Oftentimes, they have to fight back tears. It always makes them see the world in a different way.

One woman got out of a van filled with three small children to grab the meals. One man showed Croyle a flyer given to him earlier in the day by a preacher.

"I'm hungry, and he gave me this," the man said, holding up the flyer. "I can't eat this piece of paper. That's why you guys are the real deal. Food is what we need."

One young man was literally running from garbage can to garbage can in search of food before Croyle was able to give him a meal.

Another man offered him the stub of his marijuana joint in exchange for food. Croyle declined, giving him the food straight-up.

"Every story is different," Croyle said. "Some of the people aren't homeless. They really just don't have much, but they're the most compassionate group of people you can meet. Very gracious, and they look out for each other. They just need food. They're people who are hungry."

"They're not any different from us -- they just don't have anywhere to go," said Croyle's 17-year-old son, Dominic. "These people don't have a lot to look forward to. It just opens your eyes, but it's worth it. I'll keep doing it for the rest of my life."

After the Croyle family of Erlanger starting preparing and delivering meals to the homeless, friends and neighbors joined the effort.

As it gets cold, they've been providing more than just food. They're giving out socks and scarves, hats and gloves. And their small congregation is growing.

'Something anyone can do'

The Croyles are not ones to seek out fame or recognition, but early on, this was something they knew needed some attention.

"I told my wife that we do need to publicize this," Croyle said. "What we're doing is something anyone can do if they just do it. You don't need to come with us. You can just make up a meal and hand it out."

Cathy Tracey, another neighbor, has gone three times to hand out meals, each time with some combination of her three children. Her two teenage sons enjoyed the experience. Her younger daughter found it all a bit overwhelming, but she was ultimately glad she went.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful thing (the Croyles are) doing," she said. "Until you go down there, you have no idea how big the problem is. When you collect items, that's wonderful, but you never see where they're going. We could all be there -- a paycheck away from something bad happening. But we can show them that people do care and we're letting them know -- don't give up."

And it most certainly changes you, Croyle said.

"Years ago, when I wasn't as wise as I am now, I had a very rigid, black-and-white view of a lot of things," he said. "When I would see the homeless, I would think, 'You're homeless for a reason: Alcohol, drugs, bad decisions.' I didn't have the compassion that I should have.

"Now I realize that everyone has a story," he said. "There's a reason they're in that situation and we shouldn't judge the story. They're just like us. The difference is I may have more money and they may have fallen on hard times. I've learned to not judge people as much. It doesn't matter what the story is, if a person is hungry, they need to eat. It doesn't matter."

Readers can learn more about the Croyles or learn more about the family's GoFundMe account here.

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