The Hands That Feed
The folks who care for Austin's hungry could sure use a few more helping hands
The sweep of headlights cuts the night in two. The lights, the engine hum, the crunch of tires on gravel are usually enough. Sometimes, Alan honks the horn, just to let everyone know it's us. The moment is at once disconcerting yet sweet, as people begin to emerge from the dark – some to find nourishment, some to seek solace in a friendly face, most to break off one small, digestible part of the long, lonely night. It's one small event to jar the monotony and soften the struggle.
The food truck is here.
Despite the somewhat clandestine feel of its work, it's no secret that Austin-based nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes has been sending food missions into the empty belly of the city's street culture for years. In 2008 alone, it served more than 425,000 meals. Founder and President Alan Graham is a fixture on the streets, recognizable by his patented Santa whiskers. But don't mistake this dude for a jolly old elf. Graham ministers to the needy with tough love and by managing what amounts to a more than $1.5 million annual budget. Elves don't handle that type of cash.
"This year, because of the economic downturn, we've had to make decisions that have negatively affected human beings – terminating employees, trimming certain services," says Graham. "We're even having to moderate how much food is going out on the trucks – that hurts. The tough choices are always human choices.
"If I had 1,000 people in Austin giving $10 a month," he says, "the food problem is gone. We aren't looking for an angel, we're looking for 1,000."
Eight or so trucks go out just about every night; they are loaded with sandwiches (sometimes hot, like hamburgers or hot dogs), snacks, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, hot and cold drinks, and provisions, including socks, clothes, blankets, and toiletries. The MLF crews find folks where they live: dotting corners, clustered in building alcoves, gathered under live oaks, sequestered in weekly roach motels, and camped out in the woods.
An estimated 4,000 people are homeless in Austin at any given time, according to a number of studies conducted between 2001 and 2008 by area social-service consortium Community Action Network. That includes folks beset by temporary hardship, as well as transient populations. The chronically homeless – those without a regular place to call their own for more than a year – account for about 15%, or about 600 people, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The good news? "That number is so mitigable," says Graham. "Whether it's 15 [percent] or 20 percent, 600 or 800 homeless, it's ... well, I say 'mitigable' because I don't think the word 'solvable' is accurate.
"I just Twittered an MLK quote today," he says. "'We are commanded to try to finish that which is unfinishable.' All this energy toward 'solutions' keeps us from the actual solution, which is simply reaching out there and helping people."
Frank Ringer agrees. Ringer retired after 28 years with the Texas Department of Health (now the Texas Department of State Health Services) and is currently a government relations consultant; he serves on both the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable and the Travis State Jail Advisory Committee, the social service constituency of which (ex-offenders who have done their time) frequently finds itself homeless. Ringer advocates efficient models for caregivers to cooperate and engage. "If we could get more individuals to interact with homeless individuals one-on-one ...," he says: "What it boils down to is one human dealing with another – with the same needs and wants. This empathy and realization is more prevalent face-to-face."
Back on the Mobile Loaves & Fishes truck, former University of Texas basketball player Drew Gressett (owner of Hat Creek Burger Co.) and his wife, Shelby, have come along to fill a warming oven with fresh, hot cheeseburgers. The burgers disappear in fewer than 10 stops – that's a lot of burgers to a lot of people.
The Gressetts are thrilled with the night's run and have committed to partner with MLF on a regular basis. "Hopefully starting in the spring, we're going to be doing nightly runs, providing the food right out of our restaurant on Burnet [Road]," says Drew. "Anybody can volunteer, shoot an e-mail, and well, boom! Come on!"
His enthusiasm is not unique. The truck brings out the happy in both volunteers and those in need. Back-claps and howdys ring out as volunteers load grocery bags with provisions and the night's hot meal. Bonds form on these regular journeys, so sometimes, the talk is personal – "How's Mom?" – or catching up with the day's events. Sometimes it's a simple query about the availability of socks.
Food is the great equalizer. The opportunity to serve others is humbling. As the truck empties, the volunteers all agree: We wish we could just fill it right back up again. As the Sermon on the Mount-rooted name of the group implies, we would like to wave our hands and (poof!) have enough to feed everyone this night. But no matter how hard we wish, it's time to finish the run and call it a night: We have but five loaves and two fish.
A Jesus Party
"My mama used to say: 'If ya sick, give me a fish. There's something about a fish.' Jesus healed a lot of people with fish," says Lola Stephens-Bell, aka Nubian Queen Lola, whose Eastside Cajun Soul Food Kitchen has been serving her deliciously soul-stirring concoctions not just to paying customers but to the homeless and the hungry since 2003.
"Fish is a healing piece of food. Try me! You find somebody real sick, and I don't care if they're on a feeding tube: If you can put a little piece of fish in their mouth, just the meat on it, watch. You gonna see a little change." She stands up, washes her hands, and checks on today's special brewing in the kitchen: crawfish étouffée. "Give them some fish, and love that fish," she says as she stirs. "Watch what happens. They're gonna start perkin' up, feelin' better. It's just a fact."
Diagnosed with lupus eight years ago – for which she has declined chemical treatment – and having survived homelessness as well as depression after a number of family members passed away, she knows another transformative cure-all: "If anybody who's sick would just get up off the bed and go help somebody, they'll feel better."
Just two weeks earlier, Stephens-Bell served Thanksgiving dinner to the folks who come to her homeless outreach program. Her outreach is food, and we're not talking about some Sunday-go-to-meetin' bun, but a hearty meal – soul food with a side of "The Word." (Hold the hellfire and brimstone, please; she wants none of that.) Her services do just that: serve. Within this last year, her Sunday homeless offerings have expanded from weekly meals to three squares a day, seven days a week.
"They call what I'm doing 'church,'" she says, "I don't want them to call it church. I want them to call it ...," she pauses and flashes a grin, "a 'Jesus party.' I'm using the Bible the way Jesus used it to tell parables.
"We don't need all that screaming," she says. "We don't need to say, 'Awww, amen! He live!' That's scary. That's a little scary for someone on drugs."
At Thanksgiving, a young woman named Ellie worked alongside Stephens-Bell in the kitchen. She sometimes serves the homeless side of the operation when Stephens-Bell needs a hand. Ellie herself is stabilizing after time without a home. "Lola helped me, and God took me off the street. Now I want to help other people," Ellie says, hoping to tend to the needs of others after so recently not being able to tend to her own.
"People don't understand what the poor and the suffering people are really suffering from," says Stephens-Bell, whose own bouts of suffering could topple fellows twice her girlish size. Both women have experienced the reality of homelessness, and each possesses a unique insight that flavors her care. "You hit me around the last weeks of the month – I get about 100 people per day," she says. "Around the first of the month, I don't get so many, because many of them get their checks. And what I love about them: They get a check, they don't ask for nothing." So much for the misconception that greed and laziness go hand in hand with homelessness.
With three decades of service experience, Ringer insists, "If more people did stop and talk to [the homeless], to understand what they are experiencing, they would find these individuals, the majority of them, to be well-spoken and to be coping enormously well with their situation.
"Some people get upset when I suggest this and say, 'Well these people have places to live, and they just do this for a living.' Damn right! It's all they have. They 'have a place to live'?" he mocks incredulously. "That's not the point. The point is: The longer we keep them homeless and jobless, the harder it's going to be for them to ever have a home, want to work, or to integrate at all. Why should they? They've already developed a whole set of coping skills. They've learned the one thing they can be proud of: They can say, 'I have adapted!'"
A Sort of Homecoming
"What is home to you?" I ask the friendly gal with the booming laugh and infectious smile. She thinks for a second, seeming almost afraid to say what's come to mind. "I'm not going to lie. I'm scared to death," she begins. "It's coming true, but it's too good to be true. I'm telling myself, 'Hold on, don't get carried away, you're gonna get hurt again.' Then I'm like: 'Hell no! I'm comin'!'"
Peggy Forrest has come home. For the first time in nine years, she has a house of her own.
"Miss Kay said I was going to have some fuzzy posters to do, and I am loving that," she beams. Miss Kay is Kay Dalton, a Mobile Loaves & Fishes donor and activist who, along with David Shiflet and Kevin Dunn, is helping Forrest settle in to her new place. "Black velvet with white ... and the markers," she says, describing the posters. "I love those! I haven't done them since I lost my house."
Forrest has been homeless for the better (or worse) part of the decade. To compound her predicament, Forrest has phocomelia, a congenital syndrome associated with the use of thalidomide by pregnant women, especially in the Fifties and Sixties. She does not have the standard configuration of limbs most of us take for granted.
"When I have too much time on my hands, I don't know what to do with myself. I don't like that. When I had the fuzzy posters, I felt like I was somebody," she grins. "I've been missing TV so bad. And I haven't had a clock in so long, but now I'll know what time it is by what I'm watching. TNT. I love my TNT."
Life on the streets is a cruel enough test of anyone's independence, but in Forrest's extreme case, it was especially daunting. While most of us bemoan our lack of upward mobility, her survival has depended on mobility, period. Her wheelchair is electric – no luxury for someone with short arms – and requires charging. The number of places that would allow her to sidle up to an outlet and juice up while she slept had begun to dwindle when she was homeless. She had one reliable source: the kind manager of a small South Austin store who would allow her access for the eight-hour charge.
"When I am awake, I have to move," she relates. "Otherwise I feel trapped. The most terrifying thing I ever dealt with since I was out on the streets was when I had to put my chair in to be fixed. That scared me the most." Hopefully the ramp installed on her new home will help put those fears to rest.
MLF's Habitat on Wheels program has successfully placed a number of individuals and families in RVs and mobile homes across Austin. HOW intends to create a village, with the goal of empowering the recently ex-homeless to create community within a supported structure, concentrating many of the necessary follow-up services required of the population. HOW considers cases like Forrest's to be prototypes. The proposed name of the community is the Jennifer Gale Village, named for the homeless trans-woman who died on the street one freezing night last winter.
"We obtained some FEMA park homes, like the ones used last year in Galveston after Hurricane Ike," says Graham. "And we found one that is totally handicap accessible." That's when work began to set Forrest up in a house.
Move-in day came sooner than expected as the work crew put the finishing touches on the wheelchair ramp. Dalton, Shiflet, Dunn, and a number of other happy MLFers brought Forrest in to see her new home. Happy tears of gratitude and relief spilled over as she explored her new place, outfitted with all the basics; TNT on the remote; a fully stocked fridge featuring her favorites, including case upon case of Diet Coke; and of course ... lots of fuzzy posters.
Can't Not Do
"We, as a society, fail to see the cost of homelessness on our city, county, state budgets – on emergency rooms, in our schools," says Ringer. "It's outrageous what we are spending on the back end on things that are preventable. But it's hard to sell the concept of prevention.
"At the end of the day, I judge myself on what I've done," he reflects. "I do what I do because I wouldn't feel good if I didn't do it. You gotta make up your mind where you want to be with this."
Nubian Queen Lola has her mind made up. "People would never dream what makes me live. People tell me: 'Lola, you shouldn't be working seven days a week. You're working too hard.' No, no, no! It's harder to not. I choose to do this and stay strong. If it was taken away, I think I would die.
"To give," she insists. "That's my chemo. ... That's why I keep going on like this. It's unstoppable. It's important for me to tell the world to give and give and give, and don't stop. And have a little bit of fish!"