Boxes of 4,500 frozen ham and cheese sandwiches crammed the van from the floor to the ceiling as the phone rang.

“This is Allan Law, the sandwich man,” the driver said.

More donated food was ready for pickup.

Since retiring from teaching two decades ago, Law’s full-time job has become feeding the homeless long after food kitchens have closed at night and holiday fundraisers have ended. He’s been taking to Minneapolis streets for more than 50 years to help thousands of people in need at all hours of the day and night.

Now at 73, he may be slowing down, but his work isn’t. The number of people he helps is growing as the state’s homeless population increases.

So is the number of volunteers stepping up to help him make sandwiches. Last year, Law distributed 800,000 sandwiches to people in need. This year, he’s aiming for 1 million.

“I’ve never seen so much poverty,” he said. “I don’t miss any days.”

On a cloudy 30-degree March day, people on the street recognized the “sandwich man” but not his new full-sized van, donated by a family whose son had muscular dystrophy.

Like most days, Law slept for a couple hours, then got up before sunrise to drive the city, giving out bus tokens, hygiene kits or socks and blankets. In Hennepin County, nearly 4,000 people are estimated to be homeless on a given day.

By 11 a.m., he arrived at a Mendota Heights warehouse storing 4,500 sandwiches made by Hormel and Target volunteers. Law has 17 freezers in his Edina apartment and stores 20,000 sandwiches in donated freezers around the Twin Cities.

“How are you doing?” he greeted volunteers who wedged hundreds of sandwich boxes like Jenga pieces into the 13-passenger van. “These will be gone by morning.”

His program has garnered attention from local awards, NBC Nightly News, even a film documentary.

“He’s tireless,” said Angel Montanez, a pastor at King of Glory, a small Hispanic church in south Minneapolis that gets sandwiches from Law each week to give to people in need. “He speaks the language of the people on the streets. Everybody knows him.”

“He’s a true crusader,” Montanez added. “And he’s a character, too; he’s always telling stories.”

Dedicated to serving

Law, the second oldest of four boys, grew up in a middle-class Richfield home.

For 32 years, he taught fifth and sixth grade in Minneapolis. That’s when he saw firsthand how many kids came from cash-strapped families. Single with no kids of his own, he started a nonprofit called Minneapolis Recreation Development Inc., to organize activities for kids.

Johnny Hunter was a 10-year-old in Law’s class in the 1960s, going roller-skating or to amusement parks — places kids like him wouldn’t normally be able to afford to visit.

“His whole life has been dedicated to serving this community,” said Hunter, now 59 and the executive director of the Hospitality House Youth Development program in north Minneapolis. “No matter what situation you’re in, he always treats people with dignity. A lot of folks wouldn’t eat without Mr. Law.”

By 1999, Law retired from teaching, but ramped up work for the food part of his program called “Love One Another.” That’s the last year he slept in his bed for eight hours, he said.

Like the homeless he helps, he often spends the night on the streets, sleeping in his van for a couple hours before getting up at 3:30 a.m. to drive for hours around the city, searching for someone who needs help and fielding some 200 calls a day — from someone looking for a bus token to get to work to another who’s suicidal.

“If I was sleeping in a bed, something would happen and I’d feel bad I wasn’t there,” he said.

He’s only taken three days off since 1967, he said. He lives off his pension and relies on volunteers to pay for and make the sandwiches, which 9,000 people signed up to do last year. Churches donate blankets and clothes to his nonprofit, which spends about $130,000 a year mostly from cash donations, which Law said goes to buy bus tokens and other items.

He has some help, but Law is the only one who gives it all out.

And it’s about more than just sandwiches, said Trish Thacker, executive director of the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center.

“The homeless already feel disenfranchised, forgotten, judged. The fact this person invests so much energy in providing sandwiches provides hope,” she said. “He’s a symbol … that folks aren’t forgotten.”

‘The goal is to change lives’

With chin-length white hair and a horseshoe-shaped mustache, Law wore a blue flannel $4 coat, glasses and jeans as he struggled to get in and out of the passenger van. He’s a cancer survivor, but as he ages, he’s slowed down and fallen asleep at red lights on more than one occasion. He relies on a flip phone that doesn’t accept text messages and a paper address book.

Contrary to what people may think, he said, he’s politically conservative. He’s Christian, but spends more time helping with churches than attending one.

When asked why he does it all, he started to tear up.

“Because I care,” he replied.

As downtown skyways filled with corporate workers in suits on their lunch breaks, Law was already hours into his day and not resting. At a red light, a man asked him for cash, but he only hands out cash if someone can prove it’s going to something useful, not drugs or alcohol. He gave him a bus token instead.

As he dropped off sandwiches at Waite House, a community center in south Minneapolis, a 27-year-old woman stopped at his rolled-down window.

“Where you staying at tonight? The streets?” Law asked.

“Yeah,” she said, adding she’s not working but would like to be.

“You call me in the next two days — we’ll find you a job,” he said, doing what he does often, handing out a brochure with his cell number. “The longer you stay on the streets, you get involved with stuff you shouldn’t.”

She thanked him. “Have a good day, Mr. Law.”

The big gray van is stamped with the program’s name, “Love One Another.” Most people only give on Christmas and Thanksgiving.

“What about the other 363 days?” Law said as he arrived at the Little Earth housing complex. Inside, a woman explained that their freezer doesn’t work.

“How much money is it? I’ll fix it,” Law responded.

He dropped off sandwiches and snacks as children eagerly descended. Then he slowly climbed into the van, searching for his misplaced keys and at 2 p.m., finally grabbed a bite to eat — a chocolate chip granola bar. Four sandwich boxes were left.

But Law is just beginning.

“It’s a strange life,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people stranded at night. The goal is to change lives, not to feed more people.”