Homeless in Austin, Texas

Daniel Sullivan, the third Notre Dame student who joined us on the January 2013 Street Retreat  shared his paper with us:

“You ain’t no tramp, are you?” Even though I was dirty, hungry, tired and had spent the previous night under a highway overpass, I still shook my head at “King” Harold’s toothless grin. He chuckled, “Nope, you ain’t no tramp. Knew that as soon as I looked at you. No tramp at all.” The old man had cut to the heart of something I was only beginning to truly realize: homelessness is about more than shelter or hunger. This widespread issue is ultimately one of human dignity. As Christians it is our duty to satisfy not only the worldly needs of our brothers and sisters but their mental, emotional, and spiritual needs as well.

In embarking on an Urban Plunge, I hoped to discover more about the poverty that is so commonly overlooked by our society. As a Christian, I recognize that I should see Christ in each of those who suffer in this world, and as a citizen I recognize that no nation can truly achieve greatness if it leaves its people without the most basic resources. I agree wholeheartedly with the ideas set forth by Steenland and Nordengren:

Each person has intrinsic dignity and worth… we are our brother and sister’s keeper,  and… a nation is best measured by how we treat “the least of these.” Such truths belong not only to faith communities, but are part of our national heritage. They reflect what is best about America and inspire us all in the difficult, yet necessary, work to wipe away suffering and poverty from within our borders and from the face of the earth.

sr-sullivanBut I also believe that in order to truly help these individuals in society, it is paramount to understand the struggles they cope with each and every day. The indifference that plagues so many is a result of willful ignorance, and the first step to solving this problem should involve, at least in part, a shattering of this apathy. With this in mind, I decided to broaden my own understanding of urban poverty and set out to Austin’s Urban Plunge program.

Notre Dame’s Urban Plunge directors told me next to nothing about the Mobile Loaves and Fishes Street Retreat, although I doubt I would have been prepared even if they had. I drove out to the St. John Neumann’s Commissary with a sleeping bag, some warm clothes, and lofty fantasies about helping the poor through volunteer at soup kitchens (while keeping myself distant, of course). Dave Sekel, our retreat leader, quickly burst that bubble when I arrived. The dozen or so of us would not be volunteering on the streets; we would be living on them for the next forty-eight hours. With some reluctance, I handed over my cell phone, my wallet, and all of the comfortable securities that would separate me from the daily realities of my homeless brothers and sisters. We packed into a van and made a quiet drive to a park just southwest of the heart of the city.

We were soon greeted by one of the food-trucks from which Mobile Loaves and Fishes derives its name. Its sides opened to reveal rows upon rows of sandwiches, eggs, snacks, and bottled water, which were promptly and cheerfully served by volunteers to the quickly forming line. Dave explained that Mobile Loaves and Fishes views its mission as part service, in providing much-needed nourishment to the city’s homeless, and part ministry. In food pantries and soup kitchens, the servers stand behind a counter and mass process their charges. The Mobile Loaves volunteers, on the other hand, stand side by side with their impoverished brothers and sisters, talking them through the selection process with soft smiles and kind words. The street retreat leaders stressed that this personal, human component was a key aspect of Mobile Loaves’ success, a lesson I did not fully grasp until much later.

While I waited, I spoke with Kenn, a traveling piano player. He regaled me with stories of his adventures, until we got on the subject of his plans for the coming weeks. Kenn explained that while he was a talented musician, work was nearly impossible to find. He traveled from city to city, trying to intercept the next wave of tourists in Florida or Colorado. His success, when he could find it, would rarely last long. Although he was convinced his latest venture would be different, I was not so sure. I was struck by Kenn’s predicament: his frustration stemmed from the simple fact that he wanted to bring people entertainment, he desperately wanted to be productive yet this lack often made him feel powerless or useless. Kenn was not lazy as some pundits might suggest, he was simply unlucky in a tough economy and unable to overcome the obstacles that come without a stable address. Here I saw Catholic Social Teaching in full affect: the right of a person to hold useful employment and “to make his own contribution to the common welfare of his fellow citizens.” It seemed to me that Kenn’s greatest problem was not lack of food or shelter, but the violation of his dignity that came with his homelessness.

The first night brought the rarity of central Texan rain. This drizzle would have been hardly enough to inconvenience me under normal conditions, but without shelter it proved to be a problem. As the sun set, the temperatures steadily dropped into the thirties, and the wet ground would only make the cold much worse. The search for a dry place to sleep took up most of my night, and part of our group eventually settled underneath a busy freeway. Between the ground sucking the heat through my sleeping bag and the cars above, I slept around two hours that night before I gave up and dragged myself up around six in the morning. After a little more than twelve hours, I was already mentally and physically exhausted. Someone mentioned that the local Methodist Church was holding their weekly breakfast that day, and the prospect of a warm meal got my spirits up.

While we waited in line, we were met with a man who insisted that the end was upon us, complete with the Anti-Christ and government microchips. Slightly annoyed, I asked some members of Mobile Loaves and Fishes how prevalent mental illness was among Austin’s homeless. I learned that the poor sleep I had experienced was one of many conditions, including depression, loneliness, and malnutrition, that slowly made homeless life unbearable. These stresses, combined with a lack of opportunities, make homelessness almost impossible to escape, meaning even those who lose their homes due to momentary misfortune may become trapped in a vicious cycle for years.

Inside the church, I enjoyed a meal that impressed even a proud patron of North Dining Hall. I found a seat a table besides two older gentlemen: optimistic “King” Harold (whose nickname comes from the old English origins of Harold) and grumbling Frank. The former deftly pointed out my non-homeless status, and we spent the next fifteen minutes trading low-brow witticisms and reverently discussing Notre Dame Football. Despite being homeless since before I was born, Harold was cheerful and even advised me where to find lunch. Frank, on the other hand, was going through a considerable rough patch and opened up to us about his problems with diabetes and wartime injuries. Our conversations confirmed an aspect of homeless life that I had begun to grasp: even among the bustle of millions, the homeless are isolated from their fellow men and often starved for meaningful social contact. Many of the people I had met living on the streets were very outgoing and eager to share stories, advice, or even small talk.

The two men’s reasons for homelessness turned out to be similar, which was another common thread I had discovered. Both had come on hard times, the sort of misfortune that could have befallen anyone. The two men did not have access to the financial safety net of investment that is fundamental to preventing poverty. By lack of local institutions, sufficient income, or financial education, the lower end of society often lacks the means to create a pool of savings necessary for emergencies. Even more critically, Frank and Harold did not have social and familial contacts to fall back on, leaving them alone in the world without the most essential of human connections. Later in the day, senior members of Mobile Loaves and Fishes told me that most homeless people have lost their families, some through abuse, others through tragedy or mental illness. In this way, being without a home is not about lacking shelter, it is the result of a deep and utter need for relationships.

Next, we slowly made our way across the city to a highway where a Saturday church service would be serving a free lunch. As we walked I mulled over my experience thus far. Clearly, food was not so scarce as I had thought it would be. While we took more scenic routes to drag out the time it would take to get to our destination, I realized that a large part of the homeless experience is a tediousness that lacks meaning or satisfaction. I felt bored, exhausted, filthy and useless after less than twenty-four hours, but I did not suffer the hopelessness that comes with day after unending day without a future.

After lunch, we began the most difficult part of the retreat for me. Begging is a daily reality for many homeless people, and as one who had ignored and brushed off those in need before, I was in no hurry to ask for money. We were all well-spoken, relatively clean, and with a relatable story, but even so I found being at the mercy of strangers unbearable. It was part pride and part fear, but I usually hung to the back of the group when we found a stranger. Bruk, a Mobile Loaves worker who had been homeless for fifteen years, told me that we had missed out on one of the worst aspects of homeless life: not the denials or the insults, but the feeling of pure rejection when a passerby refuses to answer or acknowledge you, implicitly deeming you less than human and unworthy of communication. My confidence, as low as it was, could not have withstood such a blow. Luckily, the ten year-old Jeremiah led our group’s fundraising, and his outgoing nature and adorable stature won us enough money for a pizza dinner that night.

The next day, we headed below an underpass the weekly Church Under the Bridge service. I was barely awake and impatiently awaiting the van that would bring us back to the comforts of home and a warm shower. At the very end of the retreat, we had some extra money left over from our begging the day before. We decided it would be best to divide it up amongst us so we could each give it to someone in need around us. When the service ended and the van arrived, I quietly handed a few dollars to a man sitting on the curb.

In the days that followed, I had a lot to think about. I could not escape the fact that even the simplest comforts of home would have been luxuries on the street. But even beyond the food, television, and showers, I thought about some of the greater consequences of homelessness in Austin. “King” Harold had hit the nail on the head that Saturday. I had fit my previous definitions of homelessness, I was living outdoors in almost complete poverty, yet all the same I wasn’t truly homeless. I had not spent months sleeping on pavement haunted by the knowledge that no one cared if I lived or died. I was not tempted by addiction or plagued by mental illness. I was not stripped of my hope or my dignity by people who ignored me as if I were less than an animal. The men and women of Mobile Loaves and Fishes were correct; Austin’s homelessness is not caused by a lack of shelter.

The truest meaning of home has nothing to do with housing and everything to do with other people. As Bruk pointed out to me, most people in Austin become homeless as a result of some personal tragedy, especially one resulting in the loss of family members. This loss, combined with the loneliness, stress, and sleep deprivation of life on the streets makes it no wonder that mental illness is so common among the homeless. These mentally destructive conditions, combined with discrimination against the homeless in hiring, make an escape to a better way of living nearly impossible.

With this in mind, I have a better perspective on potential solutions to poverty in Austin. The expansion of certain church programs which offer people a safety net to protect them from eviction if they cannot afford a particular month’s rent, and hence prevent years of poverty. For those already homeless, I believe the response of Mobile Loaves and Fishes provides an excellent model for charities around the country. As I learned that week, truly Christian service is not just about providing material goods; that is why shelters are often shunned as violent and drug ridden. The success of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, I believe, comes from their unorthodox method to ministry: approaching their brothers and sisters, as equals, and engaging their social, emotional, and spiritual needs. By re-humanizing the homeless, from housing assistance to simple smiles at a food-truck, this organization makes definite steps towards breaking the destructive cycle of homelessness.

The Urban Plunge in Austin opened my eyes to some of the realities of homelessness, one of the most critical aspects of poverty in the United States. Thanks to the men and women of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, I feel a new empathy for the difficulties my brothers and sisters suffer on the street each day. While I may never truly know what it means to be homeless, I hope to alleviate their suffering in whatever ways I can through future service.