The Cleveland woman’s part began 12 years ago when she and her husband, Ron, sat on the couch in front of a warm fireplace as they watched a Chattanooga news broadcast. In her cozy living room, she watched the story of a homeless man who had frozen to death.
“It gripped me hard,” she said in a recent interview. “It tore me apart and I thought, ‘I have got to do something.’”
She began to cry. Ron told her the couch began to vibrate because of her strong emotional response. The next morning she went to the Cleveland Emergency Shelter and New Life Bible Church Community Kitchen to find out their needs and what she could do to help the homeless in Cleveland.
She told her family and neighbors of the need for towels, washcloths, coats and food.
“Within just a few days, my family and my church family all began to bring things to me,” she said.
She began by taking items to the emergency shelter and the church, but then began noticing there were people who could not get to the church to eat or find a bed in the emergency shelter.
“All of these different agencies have limits on what they can do, so I just started going out on my own,” she said. “I started going to different places over the 12 years I have been doing this — I depend on God. This is God’s work. He put it on my heart to do.”
She prays every day that God will put people in front of her who need help — and He does. She meets people with no coats or shoes at post offices, grocery stores, the courthouse and other public places where they go for warmth.
Heil is hopeful her story will raise awareness of homeless and needy people in Cleveland.
“Throughout the Bible, we are told over and over that we are to love one another, help lift up and edify one another,” she said. “John 13: 34-35 says: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
“It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a command. God has blessed me to be able to be a part of this work He has given me to do,” she concluded.
Heil drives along certain streets and roads where she knows people live either in tents or caves. On cold and rainy days she distributes sheets of plastic in addition to coats and food.
“My car is packed full of socks, gloves, toboggans, long underwear. I carry at least 20 winter coats in my car at all times,” she said. “For the first five or six years, everybody just called me the Coat Lady.”
She has never opened the trunk of her red Thunderbird and not had what was needed for a particular person.
“This is God’s ministry,” she said. “I asked God what was my purpose in life and He hit me in the head with it.
“I usually drive a Lincoln. I can dress up,” the former X-ray technician said. “Yes, I could be homeless now if I had to. I wouldn’t want to. I’ve met so many people that when you hand them food, they tear into it because they are so hungry and when you’re hungry, you’re hungry now. It would be hard to be homeless, but I think I’ve picked up a few tricks.”
But until she first saw the news story, she never gave homelessness a thought.
“I was like everybody else. It didn’t occur to me that people were cold. It did not occur to me that people were hungry because I was warm. I was fed. I could watch TV and get my mind off of things, but when that hit me, it was like God hitting me on the head and telling me it was time for you to start doing something and that’s what I’ve done.”
She wonders why people don’t want to help, but she has noticed they tend to turn their heads away, literally and figuratively.
People are afraid of each other. There is an equal amount of distrust between the people who have and the people who don’t. Heil acknowledges there is a danger and carries pepper spray with her.
“I’ve been out hundreds of times and have met hundreds of homeless people, but I have never, ever been challenged — never ever been spoken to gruffly or anything,” she said. “But I do take precautions.”
Everyone she has met has their own story. Some of the stories break her heart and some leave her with the feeling she has been taken advantage of, “but God knows my heart and I’m not the one they are going to have to answer to.”
She said there are at least 350 to 400 homeless people she knows in Cleveland. They live without televisions, telephones, computers, electricity or showers. They bathe in creeks and eat the best they can without building a fire.
Heil told of a cold day several years ago when she was pumping gas in 7-degree weather. On the other side of the pump island, a man in a sleeveless T-shirt pumped $1.47 worth of gas into a vehicle.
As the man walked passed her to pay for the gas, she asked if he was cold.
“He looked at me really gruff and said, ‘What do you think?’ I just got in my car and the first coat I came to was a big, beautiful, brand-new coat someone had given me to give out,” she said.
After the man paid for the gas and returned to the vehicle, she offered him the coat. The man replied that he did not have any money.
“This is your coat. God gave it to me to give to you because you need a coat,” she remembers telling the man.
Reluctantly, the man took the coat while asking what strings were attached.
“No strings. I just want you to know God knows where you are. He knows your situation. He knew you needed a coat this morning,” she said. “It was a big coat and it fit him perfectly.”
She went inside to pay the cashier and when she returned to the car, he opened the door for her. Tears rolled down his face.
“He said, ‘I appreciate my coat, but what I appreciate more than anything was what you said to me and your smile.’ I realized then, you can hand out things all you want and a lot of people don’t want to do that. A lot of people give me things to give out and I believe they are missing a blessing. Meeting that man that day and giving him that coat, touching his heart and being able to tell God knows where you are and God loves you was so exciting to me that sometimes I feel guilty. I get such a blessing that I feel guilty.”
During the years, she has learned from the homeless and has become somewhat “street smart.” She knows many of the homeless come out between 10:30 and 11 a.m. because that is when restaurants put out their breakfast in dumpsters. The homeless people rummage through the dumpsters for food.
The homeless know where the best dumpsters are and when they will have fresh food in them. Some restaurants hang unsold food items, such as biscuits, inside waste bins.
“This is a good time to find people to help,” she said.
Taking the needs to the needy is not for everyone, but everyone can collect travel sizes of shampoo, soap, razors, shaving cream and toothpaste. She packages hygiene items for men and women in plastic baggies. She gives out flashlights, washcloths, devotionals or a New Testament.
“Everyone is given a ‘his’ or ‘her’ bag,” she said.
Diane has met her share of alcoholics and addicts, but in the last four or five years, she has met more people who just can’t find work in a bad economy. The most coats she has given out in one day is 11. It was about two or three months after a company closed down and the situation quickly deteriorated for the former employees.
Ron does not go out on the streets with Diane, but when she calls and tells him of someone who needs work, he finds them work and they generally make good employees.
She met one man who claimed to be a master carpenter. Ron found him a job with a local contractor. The man continued living on the streets until he earned enough money to move into housing. He is now a productive member of society.
Homeless men still outnumber women, but the female population has increased during the economic downturn, according to Heil.
“It has definitely gotten worse over the last four or five years,” she said.