Team 888 assists homeless peers
A few pages into the Mobile Loaves & Fishes website sits a map that plots the delivery routes each of the local nonprofit's 12 trucks will take to deliver food and other resources to homeless residents of the city. Click on each truck and you'll see details for how often each site was visited in recent weeks and months, and the number of people typically served in each location. These are commonly known sites at which the homeless congregate: the Sunken Garden near Barton Springs and the Walmart on Ben White. Stop by around 6:30pm any night. Chances are you'll see a truck.
On the second Wednesday of each month, one of those 12 trucks goes completely off the grid, eschewing the well-known spots for urban campgrounds and lesser known gathering spots throughout the city. The truck is run by Danny Henderson, a California native who moved to Austin in 1997 and has been mostly homeless ever since. Transients who know him often call him "Preacher," from the ministry Team 888.
Henderson has spent the past year recruiting volunteers from the homeless community to go on truck runs and deliver food, clothing, and blankets to their peers, with the sentiment being that it's easier for someone to take control of their own problems if they're seeing value in their service – "and not [being] someone just waiting for somebody to give it to them."
"I based the ministry on Samuel I 2:8," he explains. "'He raises the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash. He seats them with the princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.'"
He says he's recruited 11 fellow transients by now, though those tabbed for the mid-December trip I joined ended up flaking out last minute. "You don't have to be living a completely sober life, but you must have sober moments," he explains of the poor attendance. "I can't bring you on the truck if you're high. Getting them involved is a big part of keeping them clean."
With help from a few volunteering drivers, Henderson's crew traverses the city each month with a focus on serving homeless populations where they actually reside. We hit the Walmart for a while, but also navigated dark, poorly paved stretches of road behind the Ben White warehouses, and back roads in the area that lead to paths toward long-running camp sites. A stop at an industrial park leaves sandwiches at a shop that takes in transients, gives them a place to watch a ballgame and charge their phones and flash lights. The proprietor who rents the space can't afford to keep both his shop and an apartment, so he inflates an air mattress each night to sleep on.
Though still in infancy, and bereft of the reliable contributions from other homeless necessary for Team 888 to grow in scale, Henderson's operation previews an interesting future resource for Mobile Loaves & Fishes. As the organization's Northeast Austin Community First! housing village takes hold and attracts new residents, MLF envisions a 13th truck that rides out every night from CF's Northeast Austin headquarters, fully staffed by formerly chronically homeless people. "One of our major goals at Mobile Loaves & Fishes is to transform the paradigm of how we treat the homeless," says Alan Graham, founder and CEO of the organization. "Having people who have experienced a significant amount of homelessness in their lives now going into the community to service is part of that paradigm shift."
Together, Graham and Henderson are working to jump-start a second initiative: HERO, or Homeless Emergency Response Operations, a team of residents from the village who can deliver supplies and emergency resources to those in campsites around the city.
"What we'd do is bring up underneath him [MLF's] business skills of operating a fleet and the financial skills of accountability and transparency," says Graham. Henderson "would be the P.T. Barnum. He'd have the resources to spend some money. When a big storm hits, go out and buy a thousand dollars worth of tarps. Or buy the tarps now so they're ready for the storm."