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Close to Homeless

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No food or water. No money. No cell phone. Just proof of I.D., the clothes on our backs, and a backpack stuffed with a sleeping bag. That’s what 14 of us are allowed on our Street Retreat, a weekend immersion into the homeless population of Austin organized by the homeless-advocacy nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes. For 48 hours, we’ll have to find our own food, our own place to sleep, our own way.

“God will provide,” says Alan Graham, MLF president and retreat shepherd.

MLF’s principal mission is distributing food and clothing—but Graham, 54, says the street retreats are important because they show people what the homeless face every day. Most participants find out about the retreats through churches. Graham sells them as a guerrilla-style religious experience. “You and I can never ever pretend to be homeless,” he says. “No pretensions whatsoever. But as a Christian, I believe that we come closest to God through our encounters with the poorest of the poor, which in Austin are the homeless.”

On our November retreat are four fathers and their 12-year-old sons, who are on what they say is a Christian “journey into manhood.” There’s a husband-and-wife filmmaking duo (they aren’t filming). There’s an entrepreneur whose financial losses led him to God. And there are two retreat veterans: an ex-probation officer and an orthodontist named Barry Rouch, who says he participates to “get away from it all.”

“How do you see this playing out?” asks one of the fathers at an orientation session. “Are we going to get orange T-shirts or caps that say I’m with Alan Graham? My wife’s gonna have some questions.”

“You don’t understand this right now,” Graham says. “There’s nothing I can say to prepare you.”

“It happens,” Rouch adds. “It just happens.”

When two MLF pickup trucks drop us off near roughly 50 homeless people in downtown Austin, it’s not unlike the first day at a new school. All eyes are on you.

“You guys came out here to live with us?” a leathery woman approaches and asks before shaking our hands. “Welcome.”

There’s just been a knife fight, so the mostly male crowd is smaller than usual. Many look at us curiously, but a small group, including some guys who know the probation officer and orthodontist from past retreats, come over immediately.

The 12-year-olds—initially the most nervous, now the most relaxed—throw the football they’ve brought with a deaf homeless guy who instructs them on proper arm mechanics.

Graham pulls out his iPhone and asks a homeless man named Christopher to do an interview. Christopher obliges. He talks about the thing he misses most now that he’s on the street—his son Michael, who was born just over a year ago and is living with the mother. “I was the first one who ever held him,” Christopher says. “It made my heart drop like crazy. Actually made me grow up.” Graham comments that he’s seen a photo of Christopher’s son, and he looks just like him.  “Oh yeah,” says Christopher. “Dead ringer. Attitude and everything.” He says he’ll be traveling to see his son in a couple of weeks.

Graham uses the exchange to illustrate a point. “Fundamentally, we’re all cut from the same cloth,” he says as retreat participants gather around him like lost puppies. “Now, if we can just strip away all the b.s. on top of this.”

Graham taps his iPhone and uploads the video to YouTube. He is a champion of social media. This past summer he used Facebook and Twitter to propel a bottled-water drive for the homeless. He’ll broadcast the retreat throughout the weekend. It’s another way for Graham to put a face on the homeless, making their struggle harder to ignore.

Graham once figured homeless people deserved what they got. In 1981, he was at a taco stand in Austin when a panhandler asked his future wife Tricia for spare change. Graham, then a money-hungry realtor, took it as an affront. “I got in this guy’s face and ripped him a new asshole,” Graham says. “I told him to pull himself up by the bootstraps and get a job.”

Graham obsessed over real estate for another 15 years. His self-absorption reached a crescendo in the mid-’90s, when he found himself too busy to attend church with Tricia and the kids. “The train was pulling away from the station,” he says.

Graham realized he needed to make a change. He turned to his Roman Catholic faith for guidance and enlisted in faith-based retreats. On one, he had a vision of the Holy Spirit. On another, the vision of a catering truck.

That’s how, in 1998, Mobile Loaves & Fishes was born. He, five co-founders and approximately 10,000 volunteers have since turned it into a $1.5 million-a-year operation with an 18-truck fleet serving six cities in five states. “I’ve got an innate ability to take something small and turn it into something big,” Graham says.

It wasn’t enough. Graham wanted regular people on the front lines of homelessness. In 2003 he hosted the first of 15 street retreats with more than 200 participants. “The street retreats are transformative,” he says. “It’s actually being down there, sleeping with them, eating with them, journeying with them, suffering with them, and understanding that it’s not a bunch of lazy drug addicts just asking for a handout.”

The retreats also help Graham gather momentum for one of his latest efforts. MLF is creating a low-rent RV community for Austin’s working homeless. Dubbed Jennifer Gale Village after a transgendered, homeless former Marine who became a local celebrity after running for many offices, including governor, mayor, city council, and the school board. She died on the streets of Austin two Decembers ago.

Perception can be the difference between success and failure. Jennifer Gale Village has yet to open because citizens in the neighborhood where the project was to be located worried it would attract crime and other undesirable activity. Retreat participants might be able to debunk these fears.

“The first step in solving any problem is understanding it,” says Richard Troxell, a former homeless person who founded House the Homeless, an Austin-based education and advocacy group. “Alan and his street retreats help to enlighten folks to the condition and humanity of homelessness.”

Alan Graham and Peggy.By 9 p.m. Friday, we’re in front of the Travis County Jail, using its public restrooms before splintering off to get some sleep. Some of us follow one of the homeless men, David, to the abandoned historic house where he resides on the front porch. A second homeless man, James, joins us. I ask David what he thinks of the street retreat.

“It’s stupid,” he says. David’s young, clean-cut, articulate. He shows me his sketchbook rife with anime drawings. He grew up in Michigan, went to art school in New York City, and relocated to Austin. He landed on the street after getting kicked out of his last place by his roommates. He says that weird thoughts percolate in his head. “You can’t understand what it’s like to be homeless.”

“I’m not offended,” says a third homeless man who joined us once we’d settled on the porch. “I think it’s fucking great. If you can step outside the fence … “

“It’s nice to have someone to talk to,” James adds. “Trying to find a brother in the dark is hard.”

The conversation starts to flow freely. We compare mainstream life with street life. “You’ve got your homes,” the new homeless man says between swigs of beer, “your marriages, your goddamn bills. You may think I own nothing, but nothing owns me.”

We pass the time sitting and talking, stripping away the b.s. Graham talked about. Soon we venture off to a church parking lot, where we unfurl our sleeping bags on the concrete and rest our heads.

By day two, there are signs that some participants have been deeply moved. At a breakfast served at the University United Methodist Church, fellow participant Tedd Smith, the born-again-Christian entrepreneur, points out a homeless family: a father in a neck brace, a mother, a preteen daughter and a little boy. “How much do you think it would take to get them off the streets for a while?” he asks me.

We run the numbers on six months of rent, food, and miscellaneous. He tells me he and his wife have a sizable amount of money set aside to sponsor a family.

(After the retreat, Smith sent me an e-mail saying he’s already helped several people he met over the weekend. “What an amazing experience,” he writes. “It was truly life changing for me. I like to give God all the credit.”)

Smith’s not the only participant whose experience transcended the retreat. “I’ve seen people lift people up off the streets and into housing as a result of street retreats,” Graham says. “There are always, always, always tangible results.”

The retreat culminates Sunday morning at the Church Under the Bridge, where a couple hundred of Austin’s estimated 1,200 chronically homeless rejoice to live music. The homeless people we befriended at the onset surround us as we climb into MLF trucks. Contact information is exchanged. Hugs abound. The deaf guy bumps his clenched fist against his chest and points to one of the 12-year-olds.

Austin writer Michael Hoinski is a contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice.