TRAVERSE CITY — Nick McAllister began offering free lunches to homeless people two winters ago.
His decision to give away meals from his downtown House of Doggs eatery grew from his “heart for the homeless.”
Since then, McAllister dispenses free hot dogs and coffee upon request. He usually gives away a few lunches each day, plus extra cups of coffee. Homeless customers occasionally chip in a few dollars, but aren’t required to do so.
A friend suggested McAllister include his customers in the informal program to help defray costs. Thus was born the House of Doggs Homeless Fund.
“I just felt like I could be there; I could be one of them, any of us could — and I just wanted to help out,” McAllister said.
The Homeless Fund is running on empty as another winter season looms. For the first time in two years it’s almost dry.
McAllister reached out to the community for help by social media and word of mouth. He’ll accept cash donations and will donate 10 percent of each bill if a diner mentions the Homeless Fund.
He said donations for the homeless are recorded in an account separate from his business operation, and that all money designated for the homeless goes to that cause.
“So far, we’ve gotten a really good response,” said McAllister, who launched House of Doggs and its Coney-style product in 2006.
Greg Nienhouse of Brickyard Towing stopped by one day last week and tossed a $100 bill into the till. His church is a Safe Harbor participant, sites that provide homeless people a place to sleep, eat and socialize.
“I’ve always just dropped some money into his Homeless Fund,” Nienhouse said. “I think Nick does a great job with this over the wintertime.”
Homelessness is a regional problem, with associated challenges that become tougher during winter months. A January 2012 survey of homelessness in the five-county area – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau – found 906 people live without a regular roof over their heads. That figure included residents of area shelters.
Those who do not have a regular place to sleep numbered 333.
A stop at House of Doggs for a meal, coffee and a place to sit for a while is a welcome respite for the homeless and McAllister welcomes each visitor and treats them with dignity.
“It’s a lot different than what they might experience elsewhere,” said Ryan Hannon, the street outreach coordinator for Goodwill Industries of Northwest Michigan. “He’s the only one that I’m aware of that has a fund for that purpose.”
McAllister acknowledged some customers voice concern about sharing restaurant space with the homeless. But he considers those comments an opportunity for learning.
“I’ve had a couple of customers, they were offended by a homeless person in our restaurant; one where his child was upset,” McAllister said. “I said, ‘This would be a perfect opportunity to have a heart-to-heart talk with your child. Any one of us could be in their shoes in the blink of an eye.”