ROANOKE, Va. – A Roanoke woman who has dedicated her life to serving people experiencing homelessness is sharing where this passion developed and how she closely relates to those dealing with these kinds of struggles.
Dawn Sandoval, 55, is the founder of The Least of These Ministry or TLOT, an organization that serves unsheltered people with resources, food, and the Gospel.
“We are a GAP ministry identifying where the homeless services are lacking and we try to meet them where they are at,” Sandoval said. “People contact us all the time that were living in their vehicle that we were not aware of. They found out about us from a police officer or a skill-building worker.”
Sandoval started the organization in 2011 and now they serve 150 to 200 people out of their location at 422 Luck Avenue SW.
“On a day that we are open, we have showers ready and at this time we are seeing about 30 people needing showers,” Sandoval said. “Then we will take the truck out.”
According to CNET, 95% of people experiencing homelessness have cell phones, which is why Sandoval makes sure she keeps her line open.
“A lot of people call on off hours,” Sandoval said. “In the wintertime, they will call me if they don’t have their blankets of that kind of stuff gets stolen from them. They call if they are in need, and we do what we can to meet them where they are.”
Sandoval said she understands that being homeless is not a good adventure.
“We have several Vietnam vets well into their 70s. People look at the homeless as targets. We have had several of our unsheltered friends who were murdered,” she said. “I think they can be viewed as ‘Nobody is going to miss them.’ We have people who are constantly being judged as being lazy and not wanting to work. People don’t see the trauma they suffered. It is not a matter of an unwillingness to work. It is an inability to work. Whether it is mental health trauma, physical disability, lack of IDs or an intellectual disability.”
Sandoval said some people experiencing homelessness are individuals who just suddenly lose their homes to eviction.
“All it takes is a set of circumstances,” Sandoval said. “People are just a paycheck away from being homeless. For example, if a family has a housefire and all of their money and belonging burn up in that housefire, they can become homeless. If a landlord isn’t doing their job and mold builds up in their tenant’s houses, that tenant can become homeless.”
Sandoval said her biggest push is to encourage people not to judge anyone for any of their circumstances.
She said she identifies with how those experiencing homelessness feel when they are judged because growing up, she felt that same pain.
“I was blessed with a good upbringing, but at 12, I was diagnosed with separation anxiety,” Sandoval said. “From age 12 to now I am a sufferer of mental illness. I have severe anxiety and depression and navigating that through my years of middle school, high school, and then adulthood has been tough.”
Sandoval said with that mental illness, she relates to others being judged.
“My dad would have to take me to school and at first, he would get out of the car and take me to the principal, and she would hold me there until he left,” Sandoval said. “Then I started getting smarter and when he would get out, I would lock the doors so he couldn’t get to me. Then he got to a point where he would physically have to carry me to the principal, and she would restrain me until he left. Kids would tell my sister, ‘You’re the one with the crazy sister!’ I know what it is like to be judged that way all your school years and it is the same judgment that people we serve go through because they are judged for things they have no control over.”
With separation anxiety, Sandoval said she had a severe attachment to her parents as a child.
“I felt safe when I was with my parents and when I wasn’t, I displayed a lot of anxiety. I was convinced something bad was going to happen to me. Then, when I got older and had my daughter, my attachment was to my now ex-husband and I ended up going through 14 years of abuse.”
It was a dark chapter in her life at that point.
“I was in an abusive marriage for 14 years and during those years there were a lot of times that I wished someone would have helped me, and it wasn’t until my mom passed away, I was 30 and she was 49, that someone went off in my head and I thought I have to do something different,” Sandoval said. “I found the courage to leave and when I did, my attachment became my city. My security became my city and surrounding so I lived in bondage since I was 12. I can’t leave a certain area of the valley because of my anxiety, and I am working on that.”
Sandoval was working in finance in the medical field for several years but slowly and surely, she said God began lighting a fire under her to serve those experiencing homelessness.
“My husband and I lived in Salem, and I was doing inner city ministry called City Mission, and we would go into the Southeast and then ended up in the housing project and we would serve the kids breakfast and puppet shows with morality and Biblical parables,” Sandoval said. “We were teaching them how to be kind and how to serve and things of that nature, and I just felt more and more like I wanted to live among the people we served.”
After speaking with her now husband of 20 years about her calling, the family decided to move to Roanoke and because Sandoval worked downtown, she would walk to and from work.
“I just started meeting homeless people and learning their needs and how hard it is out there to keep up with things and to be safe,” she said. “There was this one man that we loved on for several years but he is deceased right now. I would talk to him every morning and one morning, his face was all bashed in and his nose was broken. He said that he had been robbed, and I am like what could a homeless person have that you would want to rob them,” Sandoval said through tears. “Everything they own is with them. What could someone possibly need from someone who is homeless?”
Sandoval said she started asking the people she would meet what their needs were and she would take to social media to collect coats and gloves.
“We would have piles of things in the house,” Sandoval said. “I started making shoe boxes with snacks and deodorant and water and started takin’ them out on the streets and started learning their stories and how they had no one or nothing. The lord just lit a fire in my heart for them. I worked for many years and did the ministry and things started growing. I started looking at getting more people housing and things like that.”
Eventually, Sandoval said she had a calling to quit and her supportive husband encouraged her in that decision.
“My husband said, ‘You need to quit and do the ministry full time,’” Sandoval said. “I went to work the next morning and typed up my resignation letter and hit send without thinking. Then I started thinking about how I needed to build relationships with organizations and resources in the city to get the ministry really going.”
Sandoval said the Lord had a different plan.
“He said, ‘You are going to serve lunches from your ministry truck for the next 7 days a week,’ and I did because of the pandemic,” Sandoval said. “I resigned Feb 10 and in March the pandemic came, and we started serving out of my red Tahoe truck seven days a week from March until early August. We would get volunteers together and we would put together wish lists and every single day, myself and my husband and another volunteer would sit at our island and pack lunches. Then we would load them up on the truck and head out about noon every day and serve lunch on the streets to people who didn’t have access to days shelters which were closed at that time.”
Sandoval said when things began to open back up again, the biggest need became the need for showers.
“They didn’t have access to showers or bathrooms and the city finally put porta potties downtown,” she said. “We bought a shower trailer and set it up in my church parking lot. Then we ended up having four shower stalls and a sink with a mirror, and we would set them out some clean clothes and would take them to the laundromat so they can wash.”
The couple then looked at a building to purchase for TLOT in January 2021.
After the help of church groups and volunteers, they were officially able to launch the building location in April 2021. There, people experiencing homelessness can go to shower, eat, pray and fellowship.
Sandoval took it a step further.
“We were out one day serving out of our red Tahoe and everything was stuffed in the back and you couldn’t see out the back window and had to use the side mirrors,” she said laughing. “I was saying to my husband one day that it would be really nice to get an ambulance. That kind of vehicle has all the compartments to put things and a place to sit. I could use it like an office and if it was really hot or cold, I could get them to step inside for shelter while talking about housing. I never dreamt that I would have an ambulance…like how farfetched is that?”
Thanks to the help of a friend and the city council, Sandoval was able to purchase the same ambulance that was used during the devastating Virginia Tech shooting.
“It is a 1994 but it is a beast,” she said. “It was actually at the Virginia Tech shootings, so I look at that truck like it has done medical triage and now it is doing spiritual triage,” Sandoval said. “We call her Mercy Grace and she has been an absolute blessing to this ministry just being able to carry so many things we can distribute on the street.”
Sandoval said it is more than just serving people on the streets, but it is about building relationships.
The organization is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Sandoval also said her line is always open at 540-556-3200.
If you would like to learn more about the organization or how you can help, you can also check out their Facebook page at The Least of These.
“Remember that the people that are homeless now didn’t expect to be where they are so don’t ever think that you are above going through that same experience,” Sandoval said. “It is only by God’s grace that our life is what it is or isn’t what it isn’t. I want people to understand everyone has a different journey and that every single person is just as important as the next.”
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