What do you do when you see the homeless on the street? How do you react when you’re stopped at a busy intersection and you see them there? Not many stop and talk. Hardly anyone gets to know them.
Alan Graham wants us all to remember that each one has a name. He has been ministering to the homeless population in Austin, Texas and empowering communities for over 19 years.
Graham, a Christian, founded Mobile Loaves and Fishes in 1998 along with four friends. After many successful years in business and real estate, he left all that for what he describes as a greater purpose, after a personal spiritual revelation to minister to the homeless community around him.
“I just began to ask God, “What do you want me to do? What is it I could do to advance the Kingdom?’ Graham explains, ‘I think it became of interest to me because I think God chooses people who are ill-equipped to do something. If I get onto something I’m not walking away from it. The issue of homelessness is not intractable.”
According to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report, required by Congress and submitted each year by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while the numbers of homeless individuals and families has declined somewhat, the number is still staggering at more than a half-million on any given night, many of those chronically homeless, including a significant of American veterans.
And that number doesn’t include those who are essentially homeless even though they’re living in a house. Graham recalls a time in his own life and describes such a situation.
“My childhood was pretty dysfunctional. My mother was profoundly mentally ill, my father left us when I was four years old. He didn’t abandon us entirely, but when he left our family and divorced our mom, my brothers and I were alone. So yes, in a lot of ways we were homeless even though we had a house.”
Graham established Mobile Loaves and Fishes, after he says, an image of a catering truck entered came to him as a method of distribution. In a sense, it was a pre-cursor to today’s popular food trucks all across the country, only with a mission of service and outreach. “Yeah I think we were the first out there on the whole food truck deal.”
“I just couldn’t get that idea out of my brain” and being a self-described serial entrepreneur, Alan Graham couldn’t let it go, but he had some non-negotiables to his vision. First, Alan wanted to make sure the trucks went to the homeless, rather than herding homeless individuals to a homeless shelter for a meal. Second he felt strongly that the truck should go out with brand new, store bought, fresh food, and that they would have choices, and thirdly and probably most powerfully, Graham envisioned those serving and those being served on the same side of the counter which he explains “mandates an intimate human-to-human, heart-to-heart connection”. The overall vision is a paradigm shift that he says is a movement from the “transactional side of trying to mitigate homelessness to a relationship side” Ultimately, empowering communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless.
“It’s an ‘aha moment’ for people, that you can’t just take people and stuff them into some housing somewhere and expect them to be happy.”
Graham chronicles his experiences in his new book Welcome Homeless published by HarperCollins but admits he wasn’t sure about the title initially.
“Because I’m a first-time author, a publisher the magnitude of HarperCollins has a lot of leverage. They came up with the title Welcome Homeless. At first I didn’t cotton to it, but now I look at it as pretty brilliant.”
Graham describes the book as a journey through his relationships with a number of men and women, trying to connect the true meaning of home and asserts that “home” has nothing to do with a house.
“If we cease treating these men and women like despised, outcast, vile people…and adopt a welcoming environment for them, that’s what’s going to move the needle on homelessness.”
And that’s what’s happening. Graham and some friends established Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and then got to work building lasting communities with a purpose, and Community First Village was born. It’s a 27 acre master-planned community that provides affordable permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled and chronically homeless in Central Texas. The missions states that it “exists to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless.”
It’s an amazing idea that seemingly fell perfectly into place, but Alan Graham says that wasn’t always the case. He found early on his original plan wasn’t all that perfect.
“Originally we were just ill-equipped, Graham admits, “Our understanding of homelessness was completely wrong. Our understanding that you could go and get a job and then come up off the streets, and have an apartment complex in some city, and a car payment--- that wasn’t going to happen.”
One of the first things he committed to doing was learning the names of the homeless people in his city.
“I came into it with business skills but I didn’t come into it with an understanding. So, I adopted a philosophy that I wanted to know every man and woman living in Austin on a first name business.”
Alan’s desire to build authentic relationships led him to go to the homeless where they were and spend quality time with them. In order to do that Alan had to spend time with them on the streets. He began spending the night with them overnight, and at this point has lived over 150 nights with his homeless friends.
“That’s nearly half a year in the past 14 years of sleeping with my friends where they slept. And I began to learn some powerful stuff from them.”
One person Alan befriended was a homeless man named Houston Flake. A man with whom he had found some common ground.
“Houston was born in 1955 the same year I was born. He was born to a very impoverished, off and on, homeless mom and dad and was homeless most of his life, was functionally illiterate, and had spent time in prison having been at times, addicted to drugs and alcohol. But he ended up being dusted off, and on staff at my church.”
It was around that time that one of the Alan’s five co-founders for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, suggested bringing Houston on with their endeavors for the homeless to get his perspective and insight. Alan says it was a brilliant decision to get him involved.
Alan’s book, Welcome Homeless, tells additional stories of some relationships he has built along the journey, and provides distinct insight into what it means to be “home”. According to Alan Graham, the book emphasizes what it really means to be home, to be rooted in a place and to be loved.
Graham desires for the church to find more ways to connect deeply with those who are sometimes invisible to the rest of the world. A devout Christian, he believes that no matter what faith tradition you come from, that in order to encounter it deeply, you do that most profoundly through men and women who have experienced a great deal of suffering.
He encourages churches to “Get out of the pews, and get into the streets, and start loving the intractables. Go find the Risen Christ, (or what you believe in deeply) in those intractables.”
To learn more about Alan Graham, his ministry, his projects for the homeless, and to learn more about what it means to be “home”, you should definitely check out his book Welcome Homeless. Perhaps with your help, your community will start making a lasting loving change, like Alan Graham is doing in Austin, Texas and around the country. Mobile Loaves and Fishes has planted over 20 trucks in the US and they have served over five and half million meals, and Alan Graham doesn’t plan to stop there.