Austin, Texas, like any hipster city worth its organic, non-GMO salt, is known for its food trucks
There are about 1,000 food trucks that roam the streets of the Texas
capital, offering barbecue, breakfast tacos, and gourmet grilled cheese
to the masses of Pabst Blue Ribbon-swilling millennials who have
recently flocked to the city.
But among them, and before them, there was Alan Graham and Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
Mobile Loaves and Fishes is a Christian non-profit founded by Graham
and five other men that delivers about 1,200 meals and essentials from
12 food trucks to homeless people on the streets of Austin every night.
The ministry also recently started a village called Community First!,
a place where the formerly homeless, volunteers and those desiring a
simpler life live together in a village of tiny homes and recreational
vehicles in what Graham calls “an RV park on steroids.”
In his newly released book Welcome Homeless, Graham recalls the story and the people behind his ministries, in his raw, straight-shooting, and often humorous voice.
In October 1996, Graham, a convert to Catholicism, had gone
tentatively on a men’s retreat. At first, he was counting down the hours
until the “hugs and hand-holding” were over. The retreat was too
emotional for his then-very intellectual faith.
But by the end, he experienced a profound change of heart and adopted a philosophy of “just say yes.”
Several yesses and a couple of years later, Graham and his wife,
Tricia, found themselves having coffee with a friend who was telling
them about an initiative in Corpus Christi, Texas, where multiple
churches would pool their resources to provide food for the homeless on
cold winter nights.
An entrepreneur at heart, Graham immediately envisioned a catering
truck that could deliver meals to the homeless (this was before the food
truck boom; at the time ,Graham called them “roach coaches”).
“I woke up the next morning knowing we could franchise it, and bring
it to every church, every city, and every state to feed the homeless,”
he recalls in his book. “This is how entrepreneurs think: one truck
becomes a thousand.”
Through his church group, he recruited six more men to join him and
invest in a food truck for the homeless (they started calling themselves
“The Six Pack”).
One of these men turned out to be an especially key
player: Houston Flake.
Socks and popsicles
Houston, who met Graham through the men’s group at St. John Neumann
Catholic Church, was poorly educated and illiterate, but understood the
Gospel like no one Graham had ever met.
Houston had experienced chronic homelessness throughout his life, and
became a key tour guide for Graham and his crew, who were “clueless”
about life on the streets as they began their ministry.
During one meeting, the group had discussed how great it would be if
they could get phone cards (pre-cellphone times) to hand out to the
homeless whom they would meet.
“Houston looked at us and said, ‘That is the dumbest idea on the face
of the planet. They don’t need phone cards. No one wants to talk to
them. They don’t want to talk to anybody. You need to put socks on that
truck,’” Graham recalled.
To this day, socks are the most desired item on the trucks.
Houston also took Graham out to his “conference room” - to meet some
of the homeless who were his friends. It changed Graham’s whole
perspective on the population he was about to serve.
Not long after Mobile Loaves and Fishes began, Houston was diagnosed with bladder cancer and given mere weeks to live.
For his dying wish, Houston didn’t want to travel or eat a fancy
steak dinner – he wanted to deliver 400 popsicles to homeless children
on a hot summer day, a treat those kids rarely experienced.
“He wanted them to choose: Pink? Red? Blue? Purple? Green? He wanted
to give that which they did not need but might want. He wanted to give
them abundance in fruity, tasty, frozen form,” Graham wrote.
That philosophy carried over to the food trucks. The people they
serve are given options - ham and cheese, tacos? Milk, coffee,
orange juice? Oranges or apples? It’s a shift from the scarcity
mentality found in soup kitchens founded in the Great Depression, to an
abundance mentality that is possible in the most abundant country in the
world, Graham explained. They are “the little bitty choices that people
who live a life in extreme poverty don’t get to make often.”
The solution to homelessness is not just housing
Since the first truck run, the ministry quickly grew. Hungry people
would chase down the food trucks as they saw them making their way
through the streets of Austin.
The ministry has now expanded to the cities of San Antonio, Texas;
Providence, Rhode Island; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Minneapolis,
Minnesota. To date, Mobile Loaves & Fishes has served over 4 million
meals, and with more than 18,000 volunteers, it is the largest prepared
feeding program to the homeless and working poor in Austin.
But it didn’t stop there. A little over 5 years into the ministry,
Graham envisioned an “RV park on steroids”, with the philosophy of
“housing first”, which holds that the homeless need housing before they
can solve any of their other problems.
However, Graham knew that mere houses were not enough. What these
people need and desire, like everyone, is to be known and loved – they
needed community. He envisioned a place where people lived life
together, knew and cared for each other, sharing kitchens and gardens
“It developed from this idea back in 2004, where we went out and
bought a gently used RV and lifted one guy off the streets into a
privately owned RV park,” he said.
Because of zoning laws and other issues, it took awhile to get the
idea off the ground, but the Community First! Village project was
finally able to break ground in 2014.
Today, 110 people, most of them formerly homeless, call the village
home. Soon, there will be enough housing for 250 people. There are
brightly colored tiny homes that would give HG-TV a run for their money,
as well as recreational vehicles and “canvas-sided” homes (sturdy tents
with concrete foundations).
The homes provide the basics – they are essentially bedrooms – while
everything else is communal. There is a communal kitchen and garden and
bonfire, and places everywhere to sit and have a conversation.
What needs to change
The solution to homelessness, Graham said, is not going to be found
in new government policies or agencies, but rather in Christians and
other people who choose to take care of each other.
“I believe it’s like the old African adage ‘it takes a village to
raise a child,’” Graham said. “We have to step in, the village should
step in and care for its own. What we’re doing right now is abdicating
that responsibility to our government, which … tries to resolve this
issue transactionally, but I believe it’s a relationship issue. Our
Kingdom desire is to be wanted by each other, not ‘if you buy me a house
I’m going to be happy.’ That’s not where our happiness comes from.”
One of the foundational goals of the ministry is to change the
stereotypes that people have about the homeless, so that they are seen
as brothers and sisters rather than as other, Graham added.
He recommended that anyone who wants to help the homeless start
building relationships with them – say hello, ask their name, shake
their hand, give them a sandwich or a gift card to Chick-fil-A. And then
find an organization to volunteer with in your city.
“There’s a giant stereotype around the homeless, and we’re very good
as Americans at stereotyping, and so the homeless population (is
projected) to be drug addicts, mentally ill, criminals; they’re usually
depicted as unkempt or that they don’t pay attention to hygiene, so we
develop these preconceived notions that won’t even allow us to roll down
our windows anymore to say ‘Hello’ or ‘God Bless,’” he said.
“Those things just aren't true,” Graham said.
“We have five major corporate goals, and goal number one is to
transform the paradigm of how people view the stereotype of the
homeless. When we change that paradigm, it changes our culture so as to
be able to go and love on our brothers and sisters.”
That’s one of his hopes for the book, and the reason he made sure to
tell the stories of so many homeless men and women who have directly
touched his life.
“What we want to do is spread the kingdom message of a better way to
love on our neighbors, so I’m hoping the book will go broad and deep,
and people will be inspired to go out there and begin doing what it is
that we’re doing, that’s what I hope.”
Because “what’s happening here in Austin, Texas is nothing short of a miracle.”