What is Home? “My Mansion” t h e m a g a z i n e o f m o b i l E l o av e s & f i s h e s
What I Own
issue 1 | MAY 2010
I AM HERE Danny & Maggie: A love story
Features 16 |
Danny & Maggie
The true tale of a couple in love and their life on the streets.
Out of sight
Where homeless people go to hide, perchance to sleep.
What is a home?
A new survey asks the people who should know: the homeless.
Abandoned boots, waiting for their next owner.
P h o t o b y Ryann ford
Look in the margins for more info and links to web pages, photos and video online.
Alan's request was to be provocative. Blame him.
Looking for hidden people to count.
What the New Orleans MLF learned about service.
Three mayors outline their plans for ending homelessness.
Where homeless teens come from.
What i own
Posessions define us, even when we have none.
Tony & Linda
A H.O.W. success story; all they needed was a chance.
During which we learn that choice is everything.
Hidden behind illiteracy
A new program aims to arm homeless people with reading.
Why is MLF flourishing? It shouldn't be.
C o v e r P o r t r a i t b y Matt rainwaters
Contributors Ryann Ford An architecht's masterpeice can't sing without a photographer like Ryann Ford. 12 Baskets brought that same vision to the streets of Austin, where our homeless find their shelter. Spike Gillespe Spike Gillespie is the author of six books. She writes a weekly column for Austinist.com. She lives in Austin.
Beth Perkins Beth Perkins has shot for Texas Monthly, Glamour, GQ, Popular Mechanics and others. She lives in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., where she also owns a bait shop.
Matt Rainwaters After spending two weeks photographing emergency rooms in Haiti, Matt came home to help out with 12 Baskets, then hurried off to cover a story in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He's a busy boy. Chantal Rice Chantal Rice is an journalist and former writer/editor for the Austin Business Journal and L Style/G Style magazine. She most enjoys writing for nonprofit and entertainment publications. Adam Voorhes Rather than finding images out in the world, Adam creates worlds in his studio. Be it an article in Texas Monthly or an ad for BMW, he strives to communicate his clients vision though imagery.
the magazine of mobile loaves & fishes
Monica M. Williams ART Director
Robin Finlay Photo Editor
Alexsandra Ghez Writers
Kimberly Armstrong Spike Gillespie Michael Milton Andy Patlan Greta Ralston Chantal Rice
Michael Baldon Ryann Ford Beth Perkins Matt Rainwaters Adam Voorhes
october custom publishing
No part of this may be reproduced without the permission of October Custom Publishing. For information about copy, photos, and other permissions, contact October Custom Publishing.
Statistics vs. Stories We're pleased to bring the Mobile Loaves & Fishes community a magazine that we hope is worthy of your compassion and generosity.
b y Monica M. Williams
As you know, and as we're learning, Alan Graham, the outspoken leader of MLF, is that greatest combination of passionate advocate and brave risk-taker, and it was he who thought of the idea of creating a digital magazine for this community. His only request was that we made a magazine that was "provocative and stimulating" because he believes knocking people off their seats is what's called for in these heartbreaking times. So we aimed for your seats. Which is why, in this first issue of 12 Baskets, you may notice a serious lack of statistics. Even our statistics story lacks statistics. We did that intentionallyâ€Śwell, at least toward the end of the process. For some reason the statistics-heavy stories looked kind of flat compared to the real stories â€” Danny and Maggie in the woods, Tony and Linda in their RV, Michael on the homeless count, Greta on a truck run. These stories resonated with us and with our preview audience, unlike the stories loaded with data and charts. Of course we know why. First of all, just look at them. Robin Finlay found some of the most talented photographers in Austin who not only brought their skills to the job, they brought their passion and energy, too. The photographers who contributed to this issue went above and beyond the assignment and put their heart into their work. Which is probably what they always do. Which is probably what makes them so good. And when you read the stories, it may feel like they just kind of tell themselves. That's an illusion. The first person I thought of to tell the story of Danny and Maggie was Spike Gillespie. I knew
she had the sensitivity and the chops to bring dignity and grace to their story, and the result is lovely. She weaved a series of vignettes that allude to the broken memories and near loss of hope Danny and Maggie experienced every day. Danny and Maggie and all the others are why we're doing this, after all. So if you feel compelled to help, please visit the MLF website to learn more. And please let us know what you think.
R e s e a r c h e d b y Andy Patlan
Is Ending Homelessness Possible In Your City? While efforts to end or curb homelessness abound at the nonprofit level, we wondered what some of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes cities were working on in the public sector. Do public officials really believe we can end homelessness? SAN ANTONIO / Mayor Julian Castro The biggest barriers in the past to ending homelessness in San Antonio were a lack of knowledge about the issue, the lack of resolve to do something about it and the lack of a concentration in one place of the services needed to help homeless people. That being said, we do have a goal to end homelessness in San Antonio. The City purchased and leased 25 acres in the central city to the Haven for Hope, a nonprofit corporation. A fully operational campus will open soon. Over 70 social service agencies have partnered with the City and the Haven for Hope and will offer all needed services to transform lives, all on one campus. It wonâ€™t just be a place to eat and sleep. People will have up to two
Mayor Speak out From left to right: Raymond Ryback, Julian Castro and Lee Legginfwell
years there to become healthy, to receive job training, and to move into transitional housing. In addition to transforming lives of homeless people, the Haven for Hope will work hard to prevent homelessness by helping people who are on the verge of becoming homeless.
AUSTIN / Mayor Lee Leffingwell & David Lurie, Austin Travis County Health and Human Services The reality is that ending homeless is a complex challenge with many facets. A City of Austin “Homeless Briefing” notes that there is a shortage in affordable housing, with nearly 1,900 units needed over the next 10 years. The City has a short-term goal, recommending the construction of 350 units within four years. The report also assesses what it deems as “priority gaps homeless services” by indicating the lack of services available for the chronic homeless and “individuals re-entering the community from the criminal justice system.” The City is working collaboratively with the many community partners that are vested in ending homelessness and specifically focused on these barriers. In addition to significant City investments, community resources are being leveraged to continue our progress toward the goal of ending homelessness. MINNEAPOLIS / Mayor Raymond Thomas Rybak, Jr. We have the solutions. It is not a question of can we end it, it is a question of when will we end it. In 2006, the City of Minneapolis together with Hennepin County convened community leaders over 100 days to develop Heading Home Hennepin, our 10-year plan to end homelessness. Through the first three years of Heading Home Hennepin, we have worked with our many public and private partners to end homelessness for thousands of households. The work involves over 300 people from 125 public, private, and non-profit agencies. Over 30 working groups meet regularly to implement the five major goals in the plan. We are now three years into the plan and have some successes to show even as we continue to work hard with proven strategies. If the federal government made it a national priority to end homelessness and committed to providing local governments with the tools we need (enough Section 8 Vouchers, rental assistance, service funding for supportive housing, etc.) we could end homelessness swiftly.
Learn more about Haven for Hope.
Learn more about the Heading Home Hennepin 10-year plan.
upfront P h o t o b y MICHAEL BALDON
B y Chantal Rice
The Kids Are Alright 5 Myths About Homeless Teens
Austin’s Guadalupe Street, known
Not welcome here
Homeless youth are often as “The Drag” to locals, typically buzzes shoo'd away. with University of Texas students, retail shops and a steady line of traffic clogging the road. Then there are the “Drag Rats,” a heartless term for the homeless young people who hang out and sometimes panhandle there. Business owners tend to shoo them away, while passing pedestrians ignore their pleas and scoff at their “chosen lifestyle.” Just two blocks west is the nonprofit LifeWorks, where many of these homeless young people drop in for food, a place to rest, a chance to check email and maybe even a medical visit. For many LifeWorks’ clients, it is truly a lifeline. But as Will Hancock, LifeWorks’ program director for street outreach, notes, people make assumptions, basing their disdain for these homeless kids on unsubstantiated myths. “They’re busy trying to deal with real hard life issues. They don’t have the luxury of meditating on what they want to do with their lives,” Hancock says. “I think the hardest thing for most people is to look past these kids’ behavior. They’re in survival mode 24/7. In the end, they’re just kids.”
11 MYTH #1: Being homeless is a lifestyle choice. Most homeless kids LifeWorks serves come from two groups: those who have aged out of the foster-care system and often have developmental or mentalhealth issues, or substance-abuse problems; and traveling homeless kids who hitchhike, bus or hop a train from city to city. Either way, most have been forced into the homelessness. And it’s hardly a lifestyle many would choose; most women are violated within of month of living on the street, Hancock says, and violence is an everyday reality. MYTH #2: They’re not actually homeless because they panhandling during warm weather.
Austinites may encounter homeless teens more often during temperate weather, but this doesn’t mean they’re not truly needy. Many homeless kids jump a train, for example, and travel to cooler cities in summer months and warmer cities in colder months. MYTH #3: If they have a cell phone, they’re not really homeless. Not true. These days, cell phones are much more affordable (some offer prepaid monthly
plans for $20). Some are donated phones that will only dial 9-1-1, an invaluable resource for teens living with the daily potential of street violence. Cell phones become survival tools for homeless teens, in addition to providing a way to stay in touch with friends and family. MYTH #4: Homeless youth can make a living simply by begging for money. “That’s not anywhere close to true,” Hancock says, adding that, even on a good day in a ritzy neighborhood, kids who panhandle are likely to end up with only $10 to $20. MYTH #5: Don’t give money to homeless kids because they’ll just spend it on alcohol and drugs. Yes, some of the money gets spent on drugs and alcohol. But that’s certainly not the case with every kid. “And you really have to consider the situation,” Hancock says. “A lot of them are just trying to cope. Plenty of them got turned on to drugs by a family member before they even left home or they’re trying to treat unchecked mental health issues with drugs and alcohol. And some of them are actually trying to kick those habits.”
Learn more about programs to help homeless teens.
Everything I Own Joseph Coleman
Walking through Woolridge Park, Austin, originally from New Jersey
B y robin finlay
P h o t o s b y adam voorhes
Coleman was headed for the library but had decided to stop in the park. We told him we wanted to talk about his stuff. He was carrying two blankets tied together with a scarf and two cards. We asked about his family. He said he has a sister who married a soldier, and the two of them had moved to Texas. He moved to Texas to live with them in their house, but later moved out; that was years ago. He had a hard time answering questions about his past without nearly breaking into tears. We asked about the prayer card. He said he'd just gotten that earlier in the day and didn't feel comfortable referring to it as one of his possessions. Then he put it down with the blankets after all. He carried another card with the name and number of someone who said they would give him a place to sleep if he called and asked, so keeps it just in case. We asked about the single most important thing he owns. He said he'd thought about that question a lot being this way, lost a lot of things, but can't remember any one item. He was an absolute ghost of a person. We realized he was kind of broken.Â
Into the Woods B y Michael Milton
A volunteer steps out from behind his desk to meet the people he works for. Before I signed up for a homeless count, my volunteer work had consisted of sitting in front of massive spreadsheets, segmenting, writing, designing, analyzing, creating and implementing strategy to raise money. All important work, but I suspected I was missing something. Early in 2010, the ECHO Coalition (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) in Austin organized a homeless count. My group’s first visit was to an empty camp near a major road. It had been raining, and the camp was full of waterlogged junk — clothes, cardboard, scraps of paper, cooking instruments and toys. As we walked past it we came upon a tent, zipped closed but almost definitely occupied. We called out to the people inside and explained our purpose. Though we pleaded for several minutes, no one emerged from the tent, and we slunk off. Next at a major intersection, we started seeing people. We talked to a quiet, charming guy in his 40s. He told us how he became and addict and lost his wife, and everything else, after returning from military service abroad. He appreciated our mission and gave us some pointers as to where to look. It was nice to have some encouragement, and at
15 that point the evening was starting to get interesting. We made our way down a thin slice of wooded space between the highway and office parks — prime real estate for the homeless. There were two more guys, and they were just as friendly as the first. They suggested where to look but were concerned about us, since we’d entered the territory of a man who Coming upon tents could be trouble. They Volunteers comb the woods to find the hiding. gave us his description and said to stay away. There were handshakes all around, and we pushed on. From then on, the others we met during were just as warm and welcoming. These people had nothing, and yet when we met them what they wanted to do was give their stories, their support, their advice — their love. And that’s what had been missing at the desk. Whereas the desk had made me feel safer, I hadn’t experienced the intimacy of communing with the people I want to serve. I realized that interaction is important for the volunteer and for them.
What is a homeless count? To assess the needs of a transient population would be nearly impossible without some idea of it size. The entire infrastructure depends on organizations like ECHO, and it’s annual homeless count, from the local shelter to the federal government, depends on their findings the 2007 count identified about 4500 homeless in Austin, although experts anticipate a sharp increase in their population because of our recent economic troubles. ECHO engages a variety of nonprofit and governmental institutions, providing a clearinghouse for data and strategy to combat homelessness, and their findings are critical in securing support from the federal government.
Learn more about ECHO and the homeless count.
Danny & MaG gie B y S pike Gille spie Portraits by Matt Rainwaters
They have nothing together, but even less apart. Scenes from the blurry and desperate love story of Danny and Maggie, homeless in Austin. 19
n a bitterly cold morning in late January, Danny and Maggie are spending a rare few hours indoors, offering details of their 15 years together living homeless, mostly in Austin. If you’re ever up around Braker and I-35, likely you’ve seen the pair — her in a wheelchair, him with a beard and gimme cap — working the corner, asking passing drivers for spare change. Danny, 48, and Maggie, 50, do not plan their lives the way some of us do, projecting days, weeks and months ahead. Instead, theirs is a life framed moment-by-moment, need-by-need. Consequently, details sometimes blur as they tell their story, finishing one another’s sentences, each helping the other to try and remember specifics. The result is an impressionistic portrait of gathered recollections — some faint and hindered by alcohol’s influence, others sharp and vivid, never to be forgotten even if forgetting would prove a blessing.
The couple met around the time Danny was an ironworker, following jobs around the Southern states, only to lose a contract gig in Austin. Another job surfaced then disappeared quickly, and with that went the income Danny counted on to pay for his motel room. Maggie was already on the streets— she’d left her home state, Ohio, after her mother died and her marriage fell apart when she was 31. At first she lived at the Salvation Army and found work as a nurse’s aide. But work there dried up, and she drifted to different locations, eventually landing in Tallahassee where, in 1992, she
was raped. Her alleged attacker, she says, moved to Austin. She decided to follow him to Austin with the idea of exacting revenge. That’s when she met Danny. “I came back to kill him,” she says of her attacker. “He broke five of my ribs and put a screwdriver to my throat.” “I talked her out of it,” says Danny. “He said, ‘Let God handle it,’” Maggie adds.
Danny and Maggie live in a tent in the woods not far from the corner where they spend most days asking for change. Mostly they keep to themselves, though they go to church two or three days each week, and sometimes volunteers come to visit them, bringing them food and reading to them from the Bible. Even on the coldest nights, they prefer to stay in their own camp, rather than seek out shelter beds. They’ll burn a small fire outside the tent and when that dies down, crawl into the tent and under their blanket, relying on a small camp stove inside the tent to provide a little extra warmth until it, too, burns out.
Around five years ago, Maggie had a stroke, which severely limited use of her legs and left her wheelchair-bound. Danny tried never to leave her side, though some run-ins with the law led to a few jail stays that caused periods of separation difficult for both of them. “He has to cut my food and comb my hair and do everything for me,” Maggie explains. When Danny’s not around, her vulnerability intensifies. “I have to ask other people to help and they get mad. I have to
beg people to help me. I can’t get out of the woods myself.” Danny says even if he could find a job, he’d worry about leaving Maggie alone. “Taking care of her is a major job,” he says. “If she has to go to the bathroom, I have to go with her to help her on and “some won’t even look at us,” says maggie. off the toilet because of her balance. Sometimes I have to pull her pants down “It’s like we’re invisible.” for her and pull them up. I don’t mind and Danny finishes, “We have maybe two taking care of her. I love her that much. or three beers between us.” We stay together 24/7 unless I go to jail or Each day the couple encounters people or she goes to hospital.” who want to help and people who wish They wake up before sunrise, and Danny they’d go away. “Some won’t even look at us. It’s like we’re invisible,” says Maggie. helps Maggie with her bedpan. Later in the “Other people pull up and blow us kisses.” morning, he lifts her into her wheelchair, Of those who hassle them—some people which is so battered and twisted, it’s hard spit, throw bottles and food, and curse at to believe it works. He pushes her to their them— Danny says, “I think it’s because favored spot on the median near Braker. they have jobs and sometimes [homeless] “Some days we don’t get there ‘til 11 or 12, people who can work won’t work.” This sometimes 3 in afternoon, sometimes 5 or time Maggie finishes: “Danny wants to go 6 in the morning,” says Danny. to work but he can’t leave me.” Once situated, they hope only that Maggie’s daily prayer will be answered. “I tell the Lord, ‘Let us get what we need for the day,’” she says. “We don’t hold a sign. We just sit there.” Danny and Maggie say they need around $20 to get through the day. On really good days, they make $30 or $40. Once, they sat out for four hours in 110-degree weather and only pulled in 75 cents. “Some of it goes for food. Some goes for alcohol and a pack of cigarettes,” Danny says. “Me and her share one pack over two days. I don’t smoke a whole bunch but we do smoke.” “I’m trying to cut down on the drinking again but going through DTs,” Maggie adds,
Last December, the couple stayed in the home of a friend over Christmas. While they were away, someone trashed their camp, destroying their tent. They were rattled, and Danny was left wishing for a safer, warmer, less vulnerable place to live. “It’s hard for her to be out there,” he says, speaking from the warm studio where we took some of these photos. “To find somewhere that’s comfortable and for me to get her up in it — a house... then I could go to work. But for us to be out there, I can’t go to work.”
Learn how to help Danny and Maggie 21
Out of Sight Photography by Ryann Ford
"The number one goal here is to not be seen. Under a bridge over Lady Bird Lake is a common location for a person to hide in Austin.
t f t Hidden under an overpass,
tucked into a shadowy corner of an abandoned building, people lie down on sleeping bags, blankets, pallets and whatever they can find to separate themselves from the bare ground and the concrete and the trash, and they try to rest. But no one can rest here and, in fact, no one does. Most
people on the street suffer sleep deprivation and all the effects of long-term exhaustion. They're constantly looking for a place to escape from predators, noise and wandering. And any solitude they achieve also brings crushing loneliness. The isolation wears down their sense of personhood and dignity. It's the opposite of home. 23
The abandoned. An unfinished building near the interstate offers some shelter; there are even nooks that could be considered rooms. People have since been cleared from here. The invisible. Inside these sleeping bags are at least four people and their belongings. The shelter. In addition to the 100 bunks offered by the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), 115 men can get a mat on the floor for overnight sleeping.
Not camping, exactly. Two hundred yards into the woods, a makeshift camp is only temporary. Complaints from neighbors oblige property owners to run people out. A mattress, not a bed. What kind of dreams do you have on a mattress in the woods?
What is a Home?
Turns out homeless people want the same things we want — security, a place of their own, respect, maybe a friend. by Monica M. Williams P h oto g r ap h y by A dam Vo o r h es
Sometimes the clients at the Austin overnight shelter can get a little out of hand. “If a client comes in and he’s under the influence of drugs or alcohol or just angry and a situation starts brewing,” says Robert Garza, overnight manager, “I can usually calm it down pretty quick.” It’s not that he’s particularly powerful or imposing. In fact,
Garza’a a pretty soft-spoken father of eight (and grandfather of 24). But he’s been with the Austin Resource for the Homeless Community (ARCH) shelter for almost 10 years, and he knows the best way to keep clients under control. He starts each shift with doors opening at 6 p.m. His job is to check in 100 homeless men who work with case 28
I know what you’re thinking….
“Why don’t they just call their family?” A telling and depressing 63% said they had no family support structure. Those who did not have a family support structure were asked a follow-up question about other support structures. Approximately half named a friend or two while the other half answered that they have no support structure at all.
I know what you’re thinking….
“They sleep in the woods every night.”
The greatest number of respondents, 43%, stayed in a shelter most night. About 30% of people said they sleep on the streets.
managers, and put them in a bunk. He’s also responsible for another 115 who’ve come for a chance at a mat on the floor. It’s a strict schedule with Garza basically responsible for opening the doors and having all 215 men fed, showered and in bunks or mats by 9:30 pm for lights-out. It’s a surprisingly orderly process. “Most of these guys are regulars,” says Garza. “They think of this place like it’s their home, so they keep each other under control,” he says. “They look over at me and say, ‘Don’t worry, Robert. We got it.’” In the 13 months he’s been night shift manager, Garza has established relationships with most of the clients. “I have a good rapport with them,” says Garza. “No matter how long it’s been since they’ve had a shower, or if they’re on drugs or alcohol, we treat them all the same, with dignity and respect.”
If you ask most homeless people on the street to name one person at a service agency or nonprofit, almost none of them can name a single name. But when they do name a person, it’s either Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves & Fishes or Robert Garza of ARCH, according to a 2009 “Survey of Homeless People in Austin, Texas.” (See more, “I Know What You’re Thinking” sidebar.) That relationship is important, says Stacy Erlich of Seeds of Change, author of the survey report. “Being homeless is about so much more than the loss of a bricks-andmortar shelter — more so, it means that somewhere a family disbanded, somewhere friends parted ways, and somewhere someone loss their sense of safety and security in the loss of a home.” In fact, when survey respondents were asked what makes them happy, 30
I know what you’re thinking….
“They don’t need cell phones.”
When asked for the best way to be reached, 30% of respondents answered one three answers: email, cell phone, or a specific location. While seemingly ambiguous, this matter is specifically complicated by the fact that there is no one best way to reach the entirety of the homeless population. Service providers, government agencies, and other community members interested in maintaining contact with the homeless need to adjust communication methods to best meet the need. 32
“What does a home look like to you?” This was the final question posed to homeless respondents of the survey conducted by Seeds of Change. We took the list of responses to this question and dropped it into a Wordle screen. Here’s the word cloud it created.
the underlying response was relationships. “The primary cause for happiness was to be at a place with friends and family; a home,” says Ehrlich. “Whether it’s a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a son or daughter, mothers or father, a caseworker, the church, or another homeless colleague, the need for intimate companionship with other human beings is essential to the survival of the individual. “ “It does make a difference,” says Garza, “because I guess in reality they have somebody to come to if they really need something. Anything I can do for them, I try to do.”
*About the Survey From August–November 2009, Seeds for Change Consulting canvassed the Austin metroplex to interview a statistically valid sample of the area’s homeless population. The interviews were held via personal, one-on-one interviews. Interviewees chose to participate voluntarily. For more information and to download the entire survey report, visit SeedsofChangeConsulting.com.
I know what you’re thinking….
“They just need to reach out to God and pray.”
Twenty-eight percent of the respondents identified themselves as Baptist, followed closely by ‘Christian (23%) and “No” (24%). A total of 68% of respondents gave an answer that implied they associated themselves with a “Christian” faith. Among the most popular of answers given by the homeless respondents that were asked what would make them feel more safe was a strong belief in God, religion, and/or spirituality — including a “Closer connection with God,” a “belief in Jesus Christ,” “God makes me feel safe,” “Jesus,” a “Faith in God, a “solid/spiritual life,” and “being around Christian people.” 34
I know what you’re thinking ….
Think you know the homeless? The survey aimed to gain an understanding of demographics, of course, but also sought the elusive information that could dispel common myths about homelessness. “Why don’t they all just get a job?” Eighty-nine percent said they did want a job. “Homeless people do want employment but they feel there are limited resources for them to obtain a job. Very few choose to be homeless, but even more desire employment and an escape from this life.”
“Those people choose to live that way.” Despite stereotypical notions to the contrary that often portray the homeless as perhaps enjoying or wanting to maintain their current lifestyle, 96.3% said they wanted to make a positive change in their lives.” Also, “73% state there was no advantage to living on the street.”
“They’re just a bunch of lazy alcoholics.” “Healthcare and drugs and alcohol were cited as major challenges. Approximately 12% said that access to affordable health
care, for both physical and mental ailments, was a main concern. Another 7% said that drugs and alcohol and fear of police/jail were among the most pressing of challenges facing the homeless population in Austin.”
“They’re all the same.” When asked “What is the one thing you wish people would know about you?” respondents said the following: “Don’t judge me” “Trying hard” “That I am a poet, musician, and song writer” “I’m really a good and helpful person.” “I’m smart and talented” “I’m a hard worker” “I am human, homeless are people too” “My heart, I have a good heart” “I was a king but now I need a chance” “That he has emotions; sometimes he wants to scream and say he needs help” “Even though I’m homeless, I’m not hopeless - I have Jesus”
progress P h o t o s b y Beth Perkins
B y Monica Williams
A Home, A Chance Abandoned at five years old, Tony Carmona has been in and out of foster homes, jails and hospitals. He thought that was his destiny. Then somebody gave him a chance.
The same determination that keeps you alive through even the most harrowing experiences can also keep you from reaching out for help when you need it the most. For Tony Carmona, 54, it was only when he began to connect with people, places, things that he realized he couldnâ€™t survive alone. Among his anchors â€” his wife Linda, their son Gordy, a stuffed bear he pulled from a dumpster five years ago, and a quartet of Chihuahuas that never complain. And most of all, his home: a two-bedroom, 500-square-foot RV with a new front porch, a second-hand big-screen TV and glass shelves purchased on a payment plan and filled with
A place of their own Tony, left, and the found bear. Linda, above, and Gordy. “The first night, Gordy asked me what time we’d have to be out,” says Linda. “I said, no, this is our home now.”
See more photos of the home and watch an audio slideshow.
“I look around and think, I done made it. I got my mansion.”
Tony’s collections. Tony may look the part of a man who’s lived a hard life, but inside he’s still looking for a childhood. Little M&M people line his shelves along with SpongeBob SquarePants, Mickey Mouse and the aforementioned stuffed bear. “I watched a boy throw the bear in the dumpster,” says Tony. “So I jumped in there and grabbed it. I never had a bear. I don’t let nobody play with it. This is my bear.” Now his collections surround him, and Linda considers him the decorator of the home. Tony takes $575 of his $609-a-month Social Security check to pay the rent. Linda’s work at the Mobile Loaves & Fishes commissary brings in another $900 a month. And the occasional lawn or painting job Tony picks up helps, work he takes despite having had seven back surgeries. “I love to work,” he says. “I gotta work.” The nearest grocery store is a $22 cab ride away, and the Carmonas do lots of cooking. In fact, they welcome neighbors at their table all the time. If they lived separately, each would qualify for food stamps, but This is a home A simple, low-cost RV has made all the difference in Tony’s life.
together they say they make too much. So in between, food just comes. “You brought us dinner, somebody else stops by with a sandwich, another lady brings us a chicken....,” says Tony. “I don’t worry about nothing. “It’s not like before,” he says. “There was this time it was raining and so cold,” remembers Tony, “and Linda and I are sleeping in the woods just holding each other and crying. We didn’t know if we’d survive.” When they were introduced to Mobile Loaves and Fishes, things changed. MLF offered the Carmonas an RV, but said they’d have to clean it out themselves. It took them a week, but Tony, Linda and Gordy, who’s now 30 and mentally challenged, removed the drug junk and trash and filth and moved in. Then one Christmas Eve, MLF pulled in towing a new trailer with a big bow on it. They told Tony he’d have to move his old trailer to make way for this one. “I thought, ‘It’s Christmas Eve and he’s going to make me move my trailer?’” says Tony. “But it was for us.” The new trailer is a dream Tony never dared to have. It’s a chance at a life. The family struggles every day, but when I ask Tony if this is the happiest he’s ever been in his life, he says, “No. This is the only time in my life I’ve ever been happy. “I look around and think, I done made it. I got my mansion.”
Habitat on Wheels (H.O.W.) Learn more about H.O.W., the program that helped put Tony and Linda in their home.
“We ask people to climb mountains many of us can’t imagine climbing.”
B y Kimberly Armstrong
Hidden Behind Illiteracy A new program of MLF helps homeless step out from behind the shame of not being able to read. Before Tony moved into his RV, he was reading at a secondgrade level. “People would point at me and call me a dummy,” he remembers. “On the street I felt hopeless.” After moving into a H.O.W. community and working with a tutor, Tony read a speech he’d written to an audience of Mobile Loaves & Fishes supporters, choking down tears as he read, “Being able to share my thoughts with all of you like this is something I never would have dreamed I could do.”
41 This was David Sekel’s vision. Recognizing the relationship between literacy, unemployment, and homelessness, Sekel created LIFT - Literacy Impacts the Future Today. The MLF program is in the pilot phase, but already it’s having a significant impact on homeless people’s lives. Each of the four current the building blocks students, men and women Watch a short video of a LIFT tutoring session. in their mid-50s, are well under way with their reading course. One woman wants to be able to fill out a job application without having someone else read it to her. Another wants to be able to read to her grandchildren. One person’s journey into literacy began by learning the alphabet and receiving an introduction into the concepts of consonants and vowels. “Not being able to read and write can really hold someone back,” says Alan Graham, president of MLF. “The goal is to take our brothers and sister off the streets, put them in this reading course and lift them up to take diver’s test, order off a menu, read the newspaper and fill out a job application. “
How You Can Help The LIFT program welcomes volunteers in Austin; two opportunities in particular are offered to the community. Tutor specialist meet with potential students gauge their reading ability before entering the program. These volunteers also take a three-day training course and are tasked with teaching a person to read by working through a series of lessons. A tutor generalist becomes engaged with a student through a more personal and less structured plan, and each student’s reason for working with a tutor generalist is specific to that person. Right now, for example, a tutor generalist is teaching a student basic computer skills. The program is also accepting and appreciates your donations.
Learn more about volunteering or donating to LIFT.
B y Chantal Rice
When the New Orleans Mobile Loaves & Fishes changed its outreach, its volunteers missed the people.
Learn more about the MLF New Orleans chapter
Alice Wright knows firsthand the value of connecting MLF New Orleans volunteers directly with the people they serve. The chapter, launched in January 2006 as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina, initially had Mobile Loaves & Fishes trucks visiting New Orleans neighborhoods with meals for workers helping rebuild the city, as well as non-traditional homeless people — a significant number of locals who had lost their homes because of the storm. “It was a great ministry,” says Wright, chair of the advisory board for MLF New Orleans. “We had a chance to give people a sandwich and hear their stories, cry together and then do it all the next day.” As more people began returning to the city, the population MLF New Orleans served started to change. People helping rebuild the city and New Orleanians trying to rebuild their lives were joined by a more traditional homeless sect — all of whom were grateful for a homemade sandwich and a smile from generous MLF volunteers. The organization met the challenge of feeding the larger and more varied populations by joining forces with other nonprofits aimed
PARTNERS Habitat for Humanity volunteers enjoy an MLF lunch
specifically at helping the homeless. But as volunteers from partner nonprofits helped distribute the meals, this meant MLF volunteers were no longer able to personally interact with all the people they were feeding, a situation that left many of the volunteers discouraged. So the organization made the choice to return to its original system of delivering meals personally to those in need, which Wright says has left MLF volunteers with a greater sense of charity. “I think the volunteers understand how much they’re helping,” she says, “but when they see someone’s eyes and hear their stories in person, it’s so much more meaningful. It’s the hands-on work volunteers do that really gets them hooked on helping others.”
The following resources and links are inside this issue of 12 Baskets. Heading Home Hennepin
2010 Austin Homeless Survey
Haven of Hope San Antonio
Photographs of Linda & Tony Carmona
ECHO Coaltion MLF’s Habitat on Wheels (H.O.W) LifeWorks I Am Here Campaign
MLF’s Literacy Impacts the Future Today (LIFT)
National Coalition for Homeless
New Orleans Mobile Loaves & Fishes
Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH)
MLF Truck Run Information
S h are t h is w it h A F riend
B y Greta Ralston
I l l u s t r a t i o n b y Robin finlay
Beyond Food A UT-Austin student learns MLF offers more than a sandwich to the people it serves. It offers dignity. (All names of those we served have been changed)
I’ve given change to an occasional homeless person sitting on the drag, donated my clothes to the Salvation Army, but never have I actively sought out the homeless in order to help them. Tonight that is going to change as Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, takes several other UT-Austin students and me out on a truck run. Most of the students are like me in that homelessness evokes unsavory images—ones of scary and delusional men aggressively begging for change. Graham starts the car. “You ready to feed some people?” Some of the young folks we visit first at a campsite near Zilker Park, for instance, aren’t quite the perfect law-abiding citizens. A police officer lingers nearby, waiting for us to leave before he swoops in to either give them a ticket for loitering or worse. Graham is not afraid to voice his opinion on the issue. “They’re wasting their time,” he says bleakly. The homeless, he explains, won’t pay the tickets and will end up doing jail time. “I’d rather they be out catching rapists and burglars than harassing these guys.” But for right now our truck acts as a shield against the authorities, and, until we leave, these drifters can enjoy their food in peace. Graham teaches the volunteers how to serve the food, making sure to emphasize giving each person a choice between items: “Would you like an
apple or an orange? Regular potato chips or sour cream and onion? Salt and pepper?” Some of the homeless struggle with these small choices. Used to taking what they can get when they can get it, choosing between chip flavors seems to be a foreign concept. This is the crux of MLF’s mission — providing a sense of dignity that only comes from having choices. We leave Zilker and make our way to some motels on South Congress. We immediately meet a large family, a mother living in a tiny room with eight children and three grandchildren. “We’re hiding from my husband,” she says, smiling casually, her daughter nodding emphatically next to her. Nobody asks why, but Graham will later speculate that the man is abusive. The woman is on disability wages, earning $600 a month and paying $200 a week for the room, and could use any food we can offer. We pack her eight bags, nearly draining our food supply. She tells us that her daughter and son are looking for jobs. They need money to pay to fix their car, so they can drive to Michigan and get away from her husband. The woman’s daughter is quiet and reserved. Slender, with flawless skin, the girl is only 18. She walks over to her room and picks up her baby girl, Lily. “Now when did you have her?” Graham asks. “Two months ago,” she says. “Wow, I guess other women must hate you for how thin you are,” Graham jokes. The young mother hands over a smiling Lily for Graham to hold, and he gives her a mock-showy kiss on the cheek. The act looks like that of a politician campaigning for public office, and while Graham is certainly no stranger to public policy, it is by no means the force that drives him. Graham lets us know, that his interests lie more with developing relationships and meeting people’s basic needs than lobbying in a government forum. These are his friends, his people, not his constituents, and Graham is decidedly more vigilante superhero than government bureaucrat. As we leave the motel, we look back at Lily. She doesn’t know how dire her circumstances are or how her mother struggles for each meal. But she is beautiful, the perfect image of hope. “Now you can go to sleep with that image in your mind. How great is that?” he asks cheerily, talking about Lily, as we load back into the truck. When we go to bed tonight, we’ll pray that fate has better plans for Lily, that her mother gets a job, that she suffers no abuse, that she stays in school, that she makes the right friends. But if fate would have it that, despite our greatest hopes, none of these things come true, we’ll pray that somewhere and somehow, the system catches Lily before she falls. MLF is one set of arms reaching out, catching as many people as it can.
Find out how you can be part of a MLF truck run.
We Are Here
P o r t r a i t b y Matt Rainwaters
Provocation b y Alan Graham
What does it say about our society and community when an organization like Mobile Loaves & Fishes can thrive as a nonprofit on the backs of those who are despised and outcast in our society, after a mere 12 years in existence? I start with that question because I want to provoke a different way of looking at things. This is not a statement to demean MLF or other organizations that are in this battle with us. It truly does confound me. What I can say for certain is that something is very wrong, and we’d better begin to look at the reasons why if we think we are ever going to mitigate this catastrophe we call homelessness. I believe that the single greatest cause to homelessness is the profound loss of family. Anthropologically, the family has always been our human safety net. But in modern day United States something has happened that is destroying this safety net, and society is leaning on institutions to “solve” the problem. I propose we begin this way: To understand homelessness we must first understand “home.” Home not as shelter but a place of permanence, a place to dwell, a place for stories, a safe resting place, a place of hospitality, a place of embodied inhabitation, a place of orientation and a place of affiliation and belonging. This phenomenology of home is described best in the ground-breaking book Beyond Homelessness by Steven BoumaPrediger and Brian Walsh. Sadly though, many communities are opting for what I call the three “C’s” model: consolidate, centralize, and contain. These models cropping up in many of our cities are a desperate attempt to “move the problem” somewhere else. The greatest example of these failed models is in Los Angeles. Skid row is described by the Los Angeles police chief as “the worst social disaster in America.” I pray that my city, Austin, Texas, does not fall into this trap. Listen to Danny and Maggie and to Tony, Linda and Gordy. Listen to their hearts, their desires. Let’s be there to give them a hand up off of the streets so that they have an opportunity to heal from the ravages of living on the streets and to rediscover their purpose in life. Let us all put a finger into their boot loops to lift them up because we all know that no one can ever really lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. See them, hear them, touch them — they are here.
Published on Apr 27, 2010
The new magazine of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit outreach to the homeless, based in Austin, Texas.