Meet the group offering dinner with a side of community in a downtown parking lot 

by Ainsley Smyth

As the sun set on the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church on North Topeka Street, volunteers began arriving, setting up tables, playing music and rolling out coolers. 

Every Thursday night, people from different walks of life congregate with a shared purpose, to meet the needs of downtown Wichita’s homeless population, and anyone else who comes by.   

Brant Graves started homeless outreach in 2008, when he and fellow church-goers started seeking out bridges and other places where homeless  people gathered, hoping to share religion and resources with them. He soon dropped most of the religious aspect from his work.  

“As we got out here and got to know people, we realized that they don’t need preaching,” Graves said. “They know the Bible well, they just need community, friendship and some type of a support structure.”  

In 2012, his work  morphed into what it is today, setting up a location to cook hot dogs and letting people who need help come to him. He calls his operation God N’ Dogs. 

He now has numerous volunteers who join him each week. Graves said they come from many different churches and backgrounds. His goal is to be as inclusive as possible.   

“I say we’re an anarchist group, right?” he said. “I take responsibility but we try not to have any central leadership. It runs without me here.” 

Another volunteer, Suzanne Genilo, said she and her husband have been involved with God N’ Dogs for about nine years. Her husband had the idea to start playing music at the “tailgates” several years ago.  

“It changes the whole atmosphere because everybody relaxes,” she said.   

Genilo said she devops personal relationships with many people they serve at God N’ Dogs. Occasionally, she’s even helped rent hotel rooms for people.  

“We’re not just going to hand out money because we know that’s not really prudent,” she said.  

“It’s all situational. Everybody’s life is different. Everybody’s story is different. And we just try to listen to their stories.” 

God N’ Dogs attendee, Shannon, poses for a photo in the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Feb. 15. God N’ Dogs is a program that hands out hot dogs every Thursday night to homeless people in the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Wichita. (Jacinda Hall / Wichita Journalism Collaborative)

From breakups to job-threatening injuries, each person offers a different reason why they’re down on their luck, and why many have nowhere to go at night. But Graves pointed to a lack of affordable housing in the city as increasing the problem.  

He said the sale of two Wichita residential buildings, the Shirkmere Apartments and the Commodore Apartments, in recent years contributed to a wave of people losing housing. Many of the buildings’ residents relied on housing vouchers, obtained through the city and federally funded. Graves said some of the displaced residents were felons, who face barriers to finding new homes such as discrimination from landlords and employers. 

“However you feel about that, I understand, it’s kind of unsavory, but they got to have a place to live, right?” he said.  

He also attributed mental illness as one reason many people who come to God N’ Dogs aren’t able to keep housing. People who struggle with mental issues and lack support systems often fall through the cracks in the system.  

“Trying to navigate the social welfare system is extremely difficult for me and I got a college education behind me,” Graves said. “But when you add somebody that doesn’t have transportation, that doesn’t have the $20 or $30 for the random fees and then has some type of mental illness or a mental disability, it’s even more frustrating. A lot of times, people just give up on trying to get help.”  

Not everyone who comes to God N’ Dogs is homeless. In fact, Graves estimated about half aren’t, but they still come for the food and community.  

One of God N’ Dogs’ regulars, Shawn, said he used to be homeless, and was on the waitlist for a housing voucher for several months. 

Shawn prefers to use only his first name for privacy. 

“We were out there on the streets and we stayed over there by the (Lincoln) bridge the whole time, waiting and we finally got in,” he said.  

Another familiar face at God N’ Dogs is Shannon, who also prefers to go only by her first name for privacy. Like Shawn, she said she used to be homeless. Because of a disability, she said she had a hard time finding a job until recently, and that when she was homeless, she struggled to find a place to stay. 

“The shelters are hard to get into. They don’t really like to take people if you don’t have kids,” she said, referring to a local family shelter.  

The parking lot where the group meets is in between three churches. Graves said they store supplies in some of the buildings and have permission to use the parking lot for their weekly gathering.  

“It’s been years in the works to get just that level of cooperation,” he said.  

God N’ Dogs has faced its fair share of difficulties over the years. They first started meeting at a public park in 2012 but were kicked out because of the open flame from their grill.  

Then, they got permission to use the parking lot of a local insurance office. Graves said the police department contacted the out-of-state landowner, who threatened to press trespassing charges.  

They moved to a church and again, were asked to leave, this time due to the city’s Broadway Corridor Project, which aimed to “clean up” Broadway Avenue between 3rd and 11th Street, using a federal grant.  

Graves said he’s thankful God N’ Dogs has finally found a permanent home. Now, other groups like ICT Street Team join them at St. John’s every week to provide a variety of resources.  

And running God N’ Dogs has impacted his perspective on his own life. 

“It’s a lot different when it’s storming outside and you know the name is somebody that’s under a bridge,” he said. 

Graves said anyone interested in helping out can reach out on the group’s Facebook or “just show up.”  

Ainsley Smyth, a student at Wichita State University, is the Spring 2024 semester intern for the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. Jacinda Hall, a student at Wichita State University, is the podcast editor at The Sunflower.