EL CENTRO — Richard Enriquez knows the park on Adams Avenue like the back of his hand. He spent 15 years practically living there while he was a drug addict.
Nowadays, Enriquez goes once a week for a different reason: to feed the bodies and souls who live in the park.
Enriquez, 53, is the coordinator of the El Centro Catholic Community’s Homeless Ministry. For nine years, he and his wife, Monica, have led dozens of volunteers who prepare and deliver a hot breakfast on Sunday mornings to the men, women and children who live there or nearby.
On Father’s Day morning, his hungry “guests,” as he calls them, enjoyed egg burritos, pancakes and chocolate cake to celebrate the dads present.
“We’re in their home,” he said. “We serve them.”
The story was different about a decade ago. Enriquez said his life was consumed by drugs. He avoided going home so his wife and kids would not see him that way. He found comfort among his “brothers” at the park. In and out of jail, one day a judge gave him an ultimatum: Go into rehab or be sentenced to prison.
“The good Lord was with me,” he said, and he began the arduous road to recovery.
He returned to the embrace of his parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, where his kids had been baptized and had received their sacraments.
Now clean and sober, he could not forget about his friends in the park, who he knew were hungry and hurting.
“I made 20 cheese sandwiches and got a case of water,” he recalled, and headed to the park one Sunday morning and handed them out.
With his wife’s help, he kept going back every Sunday. Soon, others joined him, and now as many as 100 help out. On Father’s Day, for instance, the parish’s El Centro Youth Group joined him, along with their dads, to serve the meal.
“I never ask for any money,” he said. Instead, he invites people to bring whatever they can to be able to serve a hot breakfast and give the homeless a sack lunch with a sandwich, fruit and cookies to take with them.
They also need basics, such as toiletries, blankets and clothing to protect them from the valley’s weather extremes.
“We started a sock drive,” he recalled, with various ministries pitching in to provide the essentials.
Food is really a secondary gift for the homeless, in his view.
“The love of Christ is first,” he said.
It is important for the homeless to hear that God is with them, he said, no matter what, like God was with him as he struggled with addiction.
Nine years into his recovery, Enriquez’s life revolves around the parish, where he works in maintenance and also leads a men’s rosary group and serves as a lector.
On Sundays, he follows a routine faithfully.
A little after 7 a.m., he and the volunteers put up tables at the park and set out the trays of food and beverages to be served. Dozens of people, some on bikes and walkers, converge on the site. At 7:30 a.m., Enriquez reads the Gospel, shares his faith journey, and invites everyone to pray together before the meal is served.
Mariana Escobedo, 16, one of the members of the El Centro Youth Group, has helped out twice. She brought juice on Father’s Day. She’s moved by the people who turn out.
“There were parents with kids who were hungry,” she said. “I wished I could have done more for them.”
Mariana, who attends Central Union High School, said getting up early to participate was worth it.
“Giving them food and making them smile was enough to make my whole day.”
And it also left her “grateful for everything that I have.”
When Enriquez began to feed the homeless, there were about 20 who turned out.
“Now there are about 80 people,” he said, including some families who live day-to-day in motels.
He wishes people would not make assumptions about this population, like wondering why they don’t just get a job and get off the street.
“It took years for people to end up where they are. And it’s going to take years for them to be able to leave.”
Enriquez prays that one Sunday he will show up and there will be no more homeless.
“Until that day happens, we’ll be there, whether it’s raining or 120 degrees. We will be there.”