Hot Dogs for the Homeless

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Edmond resident, Rick Swyden, driving a black SUV, pulled up in a Goodwill parking lot in downtown Oklahoma City.

Wearing a big smile, framed by a teddy-bear beard, Swyden, 47, walked to a homeless man and handed him a lunch sack containing a hot dog, chips, a cookie and a bottle of water. Then, without any hesitation, he gave the man a hug.

This is Swyden’s turf, at least every Sunday. In a multiple-block area of downtown Oklahoma City, south of Interstate 40, Swyden, known as the “hot dog man,” is a welcome sight for many homeless in the city.

Swyden, who has his own video production company in Edmond, said it was approximately five years ago that he first suggested to his wife that they should have a hot dog cookout for the homeless.

And while the Swydens discussed the idea in positive terms, it never went much beyond the idea stage until a few months later – Dec. 31, 2002 to be precise. The Swyden family was visiting the River Walk, an entertainment district in San Antonio, Texas, for the New Year’s festivities. While walking along the river, amidst throngs of revelers, Rick Swyden couldn’t help but notice a homeless man sitting on the ground.

“He was in bad shape,” Swyden said,  “Worse than usual. I felt compelled to find him some food.”

Swyden left his wife with friends and went to buy dinner for the man. Arriving at an A&W Root Beer stand, he tried to order a hamburger for the man, but the man behind the counter said, “I’m sorry sir, but we only serve hot dogs at this location.”

“I was stunned that they didn’t have hamburgers. But then I thought, ‘Hot dogs.’ This is like a sign from God.”

Cradling a hot dog, Swyden went out to look for the man. Unfortunately he was gone. Eventually he found a homeless couple and was able to assist them. Later, Swyden returned to his hotel room and wept like he had never wept before. He felt this would be his mission – to help feed the homeless any way he could.

Later that evening, as people celebrated the arrival of 2003, Swyden said he had found his calling, and “Hotdogs for the Homeless” was born.

Almost a week after returning to Edmond, Swyden and his wife bought sixteen hot dogs and hot dog buns and cooked them up. He also brought some chips and bottles of water. Hopping in their vehicle, the couple drove downtown, uncertain where they’d find any homeless people.

It was freezing outside and they happened upon an encampment near Sheridan and Classen Avenue.

“I wasn’t going to treat the homeless like animals, handing out sack lunches through the window,” Swyden said. “I decided to get out and give them their lunch sack.”

While the homeless folks at the encampment were skeptical and maybe a little scared, they did accept the free meals.

Handing out food to the homeless on the streets of Oklahoma City grew from that first experience.  Presently Swyden has handed out over 65,000 hot dog lunches. Hotdogs for the Homeless has been so successful that this past April, the organization received national exposure when CBS Evening News with Katie Couric did a profile on the ministry.

Swyden said he starts out on a normal Sunday morning preparing the hot dogs and sack lunches in a building at Hefner Road and May Avenue.

When you’re out on the streets with Swyden, as he is on this day, along with a Catholic student group from the University of Oklahoma, it’s quickly clear that he knows their names and knows them personally.

At 4th and Hudson Avenue, Swyden puts his arm around a man named Raymond. Raymond has been coming for hot dog lunches for about three years now. He treats Raymond like a human being – with dignity and love.
“It’s absolutely not about the hot dogs,” Swyden said. “It’s about having communication with people.” The hot dog is the tool used to find their individual needs and try to help them.

Swyden believes part of the reason for his success is that he doesn’t judge them. And when you ask him why he felt compelled to take on the role of “hot dog man,” he says that it not only has to do with his Christian faith and feeding the hungry, it also has to do with a cartoon he loved as a child – “Underdog.”

“I’ve always rooted for the underdog ever since I was a kid,” he said. “I always find rags-to-riches stories inspirational.”

For more information on Hot Dogs for the Homeless, go to Swyden adds that extra donations are always helpful.

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