Homeless Salemites can count on daily dinner thanks to Jerry Barza

When Jerry Barza had a heart attack in 2008, he said God called him to dedicate his life to volunteering.

Barza has since spent over a decade making sure homeless people in Salem don’t go hungry. 

In recent years, many have counted on the daily dinners served at the ARCHES Project. The homeless service provider offers breakfast and lunch, but Barza is the linchpin of the dinner operation. 

Seven nights a week, he organizes and serves meals made by other volunteers in ARCHES’ parking lot.

One regular contributor, Salem’s Happy Bibimbap House, each week sets aside Korean food for Barza – served Mondays at 4 p.m.

When other providers aren’t available or meals run out, he makes a run to Grocery Outlet, buys “a bunch of hot dogs” and breaks out his propane stove.

Barza can be seen at ARCHES any night of the week, cracking joking with guests as they wait in line with paper plates – many of whom he knows by name. 

His jokes are often inspired by scripture. Sitting by and watching the line, he asked Salem Reporter why Noah didn’t have any apples, oranges, bananas or peaches on his ark. Barza’s answer: Because God told him the animals had to go in “pears.”

Barza sets up the daily meals while chatting and bantering with other volunteers.

Dave Isaac, who ministers at the dinners, first met Barza at Union Gospel Mission and has known him for 20 years. The daily dinners are a team effort by volunteers, but Isaac said Barza is in charge.

“Everybody says he does a good job getting things going, making sure people get a bite to eat,” Isaac said.

Barza also follows every dinner he serves with a prayer.

Since childhood, he has known firsthand what his guests go through living on the streets in Salem.

Barza was raised locally by a single mother, who was homeless. She died when he was 16 years old, and he went into foster care. 

With nowhere else to go after he turned 18, he said he began staying at the Salvation Army and volunteering at its emergency shelter.

Barza earned his GED in 1979 while in jail for theft. He worked odd jobs such as construction and towing, but continued for years to battle addiction and said he struggled to hold jobs with a felony conviction.

Meanwhile, he said he sought one volunteering opportunity after another. “I didn’t have a reason to do it, just stay busy,” he said.

After Barza survived his heart attack, “everything fell into place,” he recalled thinking. “Okay, Lord. You’re driving.”

Instead of applying for a “regular job,” Barza directed his full attention to serving Salemites in need, living on disability benefits. That started with volunteer work at a west Salem food bank and the Mission.

In 2010 he began gathering volunteers to deliver meals to homeless people every night of the week under the Center Street bridge. 

During the pandemic, ARCHES let him set up shop just outside its day center, 615 Commercial St. N.E.

The nonprofit serves breakfast for homeless people from 9 to 10 a.m and lunch from noon to 1 p.m. indoors. Thanks to Barza, they can also find dinner in the parking lot every night.

He said they served between 50 to 70 people until recently, and they now see around 100 people in line each night.

On Sundays, he and a local pastor host “church without walls” at Wallace Marine Park.

Dinner is served at 4 p.m. on Mondays, between 6-6:30 p.m. on Fridays, and between 4:30-5 p.m. every other day of the week.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.