Ralph Davis knows what it’s like to be homeless. In the early 1970s, he was homeless twice, the first time for a couple weeks in Miami, Fla., and a few months later; he was without adequate shelter in Pasadena, Texas.
He was into drugs, and in trouble.
“I know what it’s like to sleep under bushes, be harassed by police, scam restaurants out of money [and] steal food,” he said.
Fortunately, he had family in Rhode Island who helped him get back on his feet. While he’s had his share of ups and downs through the years, he’s been unofficially campaigning for the homeless since the mid-1970s, and in October 2008, he co-founded The Midnight Moment, an outreach program to benefit homeless people living throughout Rhode Island, particularly the south side of Providence.
He, along with a handful of dedicated friends, visits areas such as downtown Providence, Waterplace Park, the length of Cranston Street, Olneyville and Manton Avenue to pass out food and clothing.
“Anybody that we see walking the street, no matter how they are dressed, we call out, ‘Are you hungry? We have some beef stew and hot chocolate,’” Davis said. “Once in a while, someone will be insulted and say, ‘I’m not homeless,’ but if they say they are hungry, we feed them.”
Davis and his team have a strict rule: they always exit their vehicle and talk with the person while feeding them or giving them a drink of water. He keeps his homemade beef stew in an insulated box he made especially for the cause, and enjoys popping open the back doors to serve the hungry.
“It gives us an opportunity to shake hands,” he said. “We always ask them if they want us to pray with them. Some don’t and some do, but you’d be amazed at how profound those things are when they do want us to.”
Davis, a former newspaper reporter who has been living in Warwick for 26 years, co-founded The Midnight Moment with Denise Ferzan, a Fall River woman who shares his passion for helping those in need. The two had been conducting separate initiatives before joining forces.
These days, they each visit Providence and surrounding areas once a week, accompanied by a few helpers. Davis tends to head out for a few hours every Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., as well as every other Thursday night.
One time, Davis and Ferzan visited a shelter together in Providence with a van packed with food and clothing. It was 2:30 in the morning, and they met a man who had urinated on himself. A staff member found jeans for the man but wasn’t able to find underwear for him.
Davis began serving hot chocolate in the lobby, and in time, noticed Ferzan was nowhere to be seen. He went outside to look for her, and found her tearing through the truck to find underwear for the man. She didn’t stop until she found some.
Actions such as these, said Davis, make a difference. He feels proud that he gets to help others alongside a group of such giving, considerate people.
Aside from Ferzan, Davis has a few more helpers, including his daughter, Elise Davis, 21, a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, as well as his friends Rose Preston and Cheryl Russell.
“They are just amazing people,” he said.
Not only does he feel privileged to be surrounded by thoughtful friends and family members who want to help just as much as he does, he takes pleasure in meeting homeless people along the way. He doesn’t judge them or try to council them, as many are addicts.
“Our philosophy has always been to never judge or say, ‘You need to stop drinking,’” Davis said. “If they come to us, we pray with them about it.”
Ferzan added, “We give them what they need in the moment, which is food and prayer,” she said, noting that they also provide numbers and addresses to shelters and other resources.
While he’s not sure how many people they’ve helped through the years, nor does he know how much money they’ve spent, Davis said he has received a few donations. The funds, he said, go right to the cause. For the most part, Davis and Ferzan fund the movement with their own money.
“You’ll never see anything written that asks for money because I believe God will provide,” he said.
Instead, they hope people will read about their initiative and be encouraged to reach out to people in need. After all, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, there were 4,410 homeless people in the Ocean State in 2011. One in four were children.
That’s why Davis has visited the Salvation Army at least four times in the recent past to buy winter items for kids. At 50 percent off, he’s been able to get quite a few, plus nearly 10 pairs of boots and some educational DVDs.
“You can go to the movie theater and buy a bucket of popcorn and a soda – that’s the cost of a kid’s coat at Wal-Mart,” he said. “Instead of spending $1 on a lottery ticket, that could be two hats at the Salvation Army for a child. Just say, ‘here.’ If they say ‘no,’ fine. Most of the time they will say ‘yes,’ and your reward will be seeing the face of relief. In order to make a difference, you have to be different. You can’t change things by adding more of the same.”
Davis typically carries items with him in the event he comes across anyone in need. Recently, he saw two people who appeared to be homeless hanging out in the parking lot of a local Wal-Mart. He approached them to see if they needed anything.
“I said, ‘Are you hungry?’ and the woman said, ‘How did you know we were homeless?’ I said, ‘I could see it in your eyes,’” said Davis. “I gave them socks, asked them if they wanted to pray, and they did.”
When he’s not passing out food and clothing, Davis is running a local home improvement company, as well as preparing his homemade beef stew. But don’t ask him for the recipe.
When asked what he uses to make it, he said, “A lot of secret ingredients.”