Standing in the wintry high desert night air, I'm watching Siloh Moses give his welcome briefing to the two-dozen or so volunteers who, like me, are here for the first time. In his mid-30s, robustly healthy, and extremely well-spoken, Siloh was living on the streets of Las Vegas just 18 months ago. Only his unflinchingly steady eyes hint at his rough past.
"Tip number one is 'no judging,'" Siloh tells our group of badge-wearing newbies, as nearly a hundred other #ServingHopeLV volunteers set up a long line of food-laden tables and erect bright floodlights that penetrate the darkness of this abandoned lot, just blocks from the glittering mega-casinos of the Vegas strip.
"Let me put it to you this way: The worst thing about being homeless [isn't] not having a place to stay or not knowing what you are going to eat and when," Siloh tells me. "The worst part about being homeless is how other people treat you when you are homeless." After losing his job as a call center manager when the economy hit a bump, Siloh found himself homeless; he lived on the streets for seven months.
"You're a ghost," he explains. "A shell of a person that doesn't exist."
Tonight, society's ghosts were already lining up down the block; 400 or 500 people of all colors and ages, including families and kids under ten years old. This just a fraction of the more than 8,000 individuals without a place to lay their head, stay warm, or prepare a meal in Southern Nevada any given night of the year.
"Tip number two is: We do nothing with money," Siloh adds, meaning that his organization doesn't offer monetary assistance, and recipients don't solicit it themselves.
He founded Serving Hope LV as soon as he got back on his feet, which he says happened after "I had someone believe in me before I believed in myself." Deciding to return the favor and spread the love, Siloh showed up on Las Vegas's own Skid Row, where a local Catholic church has been passing out packaged food and necessities to the homeless for 15 years, with a home-cooked pot of spaghetti. It emptied quickly, so he came back with two pots the following week.
Word soon spread and the Monday night food feast quickly became a local phenomenon. The organization is not affiliated with a church or charity group. People simply show up with home-cooked food and dish it out.
"Our organic grassroots organization was born on social media and is just that—grassroots," Siloh explains. "For a long time, we did what we did without a website and only brought in people to volunteer with us through word-of-mouth. Without spending one word on advertising, last year we served over 62,000 individual plates of food, over 20,000 individual articles of clothing, and over 14,000 bottles of water."
Explaining the core philosophy behind the group, he adds: "We are completely independent, for the people by the people. We are just friends serving future friends."
Like other service industry-driven cities, Vegas has a special affinity for Monday nights—the night off of work for many bartenders, waiters, and performers. #GiveBackMondays has become a regular feature of the weekly calendar for many (including my sister, a local singer, who brought me here).
"We currently have about 60 core volunteers that are diehard #ServingHopeLV family members, and on any given Monday night giving back, we could range in between 30 to 50 new volunteers." Siloh estimates.
"We eat together, celebrate birthday parties together, and recognize each other when someone does something amazing," he says. "When you show up to give back for all the right reasons, you find that you receive more than what you have given. It's a beautiful thing."
In the food lineup, where I stand behind my seven-year-old niece as she dishes out the hot wings we prepared at my sister's house, I strike up a conversation with a pair of fellow volunteers—a Thai woman and her teenage daughter—about the food being served. Although it's lasagna time tonight, she says she often cooks spicy curries and other Southeast Asian specialties, and loves the fact that it delights the hungry guests.
"We make it a mission to serve fresh food that they cannot find anywhere else," Siloh later tells me.
"We've been so fortunate that we have a few full-time chefs that come down to #GiveBackMondays with dishes that you will only find in the finest of restaurants. and they give away these dishes for free—food you would not be served in a shelter or at a soup kitchen. Dishes like baked ziti, chili, chicken parmesan, coconut curry, or vegan-style jicama and pomelo salad with spicy Thai dressing."
As an older black guest stops in front of my niece and me, piling his already-packed Styrofoam container with as many wings as he can.
"Walking all day makes you hungry," he says, winking and smiling. "Gotta keep moving out there—they keep you moving along."
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million people are now homeless in the United States. "From our research, we've found that when we are talking about what actually triggers [people] to go into homelessness, 35 percent is due to loss of job or income, 15 percent is due to bills higher than earnings, and 13 percent is due to eviction from family members," Siloh reveals. "Just 10 percent out of 100 percent have some sort of mental challenges, and just 9 percent [combined] is due to an alcohol or drug challenge."
He continues: "So now that we know what the major trigger for homelessness is … loss of income, how do we begin to fix that?"
Siloh sends some of the volunteers into the food line to serve the dishes we have prepared, while others head to Team Clothing or Team Hygiene to help distribute warm winter jackets and personal items to those that need them. His final tip for us is: "Let it roll off your shoulders." This is a gentle reminder to not get fazed by the small number of guests who may be in a bad mood—but to me, it's an encouragement to focus on the solutions to homelessness instead of fighting the problem head-on.
"Something magical happens when people come as they are. Deep bonds are made, friendships are formed, and a tribe is born," Siloh tells me. "We are now a community, and we have lots of concepts in the pipeline for 2016."
One of these concepts is an app that is designed to "connect people who have too much food to those that do not have enough."
"We are going to collect food that, without our app, would have been otherwise discarded, and gift that same exact food to our local grassroots partnered agencies that also serve those who are less fortunate," Siloh says.
As I leave the event and my newly made friends, I wonder how fast the world would change if these kinds of grassroots food programs starting springing up everywhere. Could this simple act of feeding each other be the revolution that we are all looking for?
Maybe that's is taking it too far. But I know where I will be the next time I am in Vegas on a Monday night.