Texas Group Drives Meals to the Homeless

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Alan Graham

Alan Graham, a former real estate developer, is president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Wade Goodwyn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Wade Goodwyn, NPR

In Austin, Texas, a commercial real-estate entrepreneur is employing catering trucks to feed the homeless. His organization, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, uses customized trucks and volunteer drivers to deliver meals to those living in the streets.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, going for an evening drive for the next few moments in Austin, Texas. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. We're in a truck, looking for hungry people. They are out there - homeless, isolated, often overlooked. A man in Austin thought the cities most desperate might be doing better if he provided food for them where they live: on the streets. It's a note of grace, and as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, it's always welcome.

WADE GOODWYN: Since before the Great Depression, the traditional approach to feeding the homeless has been centralized soup kitchens that offer a hot meal at a specific time of day. But one day six years ago, Alan Graham - a commercial real estate developer in Austin - had a brainstorm. Graham was having lunch with a friend who was telling him about a group in Corpus Christi that was taking warm cocoa and blankets out to the homeless for Christmas, and bam! Into Graham's head popped an idea. He could use catering trucks to take not just cocoa, but dinner to the homeless on the streets where they live. And not just at Christmas, but every single day.

Mr. ALAN GRAHAM (Commercial Real Estate Developer; Founder, Mobile Loaves and Fishes): I couldn't tell you if I've ever eaten off of a catering truck before in my entire life, but for some reason during that conversation, out of my subconscious being came this concept.

GOODWYN: Graham made his fortune building airport cargo facilities. He's always lived by his wits in business, and he says he knew immediately that he was on to something.

Mr. GRAHAM: I thought it was franchisable. And you have to understand the mind of an entrepreneur sometime, and a dreamer. That's how I spent my entire life.

GOODWYN: Graham is a member of St. John Newman Catholic Church in the hills of West Austin. It's one of the highest earner zip codes in the country. When he floated the idea among four of his friends at the church, he found himself with $25,000 in donations and pledges to personally help. Graham says they were a bit worried at first they might be out of their element.

Mr. GRAHAM: First, we had to figure out whether five white guys from West Lake Hills could actually go out and serve the homeless. So we packed up 75 sack lunches and went in one of my buddy's minivans one night with a homeless friend of ours that we met named Houston Flake(ph). And let me tell you, man. We had a - we had a gas. We knew it was the real deal.

GOODWYN: The real deal indeed. There are now 5,600 volunteers in Austin, each of whom go out one evening a month for about two hours and deliver meals to the homeless.

Dr. BARRY ROUCH(ph) (Orthodontist): We can just sort of zoom into the map, and I know a number of the locations downtown because I've been doing this for a while.

GOODWYN: Volunteer Barry Rouch is a fit looking man, an orthodontist in his late 40s. Standing at a computer in the Mobile Loaves and Fishes food preparation area, Rouch is choosing his itinerary for the evening by simply clicking on the homeless sites they'd like to serve. There are eighty sites on the Austin map. It's first come first served. The volunteers have complete control over where they go. The only rule is they have to serve all 75 meals. They can do it in one stop or 12 as they wish.

Dr. ROUCH: Sometimes we find three people, sometimes five. I like going to the sites where we might find 30 people.

GOODWYN: The volunteers have all different kinds of preferences. New volunteers sometimes like to start by serving homeless families, which can feel less threatening. As they become veterans and get more confident, a portion take pride and get more satisfaction serving harder cases, like young crack addicts and prostitutes. The options are many. Homeless women, talented alcoholics making a comeback. Often volunteers form attachments. Barry Rouch says 12 times a year, it gives him much-needed perspective.

Dr. ROUCH: Sometimes I feel like I have problems at home or at work, and every time I go out I realize I have no problems at all.

GOODWYN: Each catering truck has half a dozen volunteers that go out on it. That's a key element of success. The volunteers feel safe in their number. In addition to those that go out in trucks, there are volunteers who prefer to prepare the food. At 5:30, people gather in a circle for a quick prayer and hit the road.

Unidentified Man #1: Heavenly father, we're so grateful to have the opportunity to be with you this evening.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

Unidentified Man #2: We got the alley, row of palms, Riverside and I-35's, and the bus stop at HUV.

(Soundbite of traffic sounds)

GOODWYN: At the intersection of I-35 and Riverside, the Mobile Loaves and Fishes catering truck rolls to a stop in a vacant lot and honks its horn. Immediately, men come out of the woods and off the median where they do what they call flying a sign.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

Mr. GARY HOLSICK(ph): Gary, Gary.

Unidentified woman: How you, yeah. How are you doing?

Mr. HOLSICK: Fine.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, milk or juice?

Mr. HOLSICK: Juice.

Unidentified Woman: And we've got some eggs.

Mr. HOLSICK: I'm fine. Thank you.

GOODWYN: Gary Holsick is in his 40s. He became homeless after his wife of 16 years left him because he drank too much beer.

Mr. HOLSICK: They even kind of want to kind of talk to me a little bit about how to live out here on the street. They know all these people. They know Ron there, and that's JD. That's Barry over there. I know everybody here. I been here four years, right here on this same corner.

GOODWYN: Everyone here is a big fan of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. A meal is two sandwiches or hot dogs. There's fruit, coffee, juice, cookies and candy. There are toiletries, too, and minor medical supplies. And most importantly, socks - 70,000 pairs given away last year. They take their bag of food and go back to their spot where they can eat in privacy and safety. That's a big plus.

Mr. HOLSICK: I got a sleeping bag and a lot of blankets. We do have a tent. We got several tents - like tent city up here, actually. We know the guy that owns the land. As long as we keep it clean, it's okay.

GOODWYN: Because the volunteers only go once a month, there are almost always new people for the homeless to meet. Many of the homeless are lonely and like a chance to chat. Gary Holsick.

Mr. HOLSICK: The thing of it is is catching them when they come by. See, I almost missed them. I was on my way up - I was heading east up to the store here. I mean, you know what can I say? It's God send to me, you know.

GOODWYN: Mobile Loaves and Fishes founder Alan Graham has discovered a way to make serving the homeless easily accessible to large, middle class religious congregations. Parishioners like the truck. They like the idea of going out together. They like the stories they hear from those who've been to the front, and once a month is no problem - perfect for the busy working mom and dad who'd like to do something if they had the time. Graham believes his model is the future of serving people who live on the streets.

Mr. GRAHAM: What I think is that every since World War II, we Americans have abdicated our responsibility to serve the most vulnerable in our society to the federal government and institutions. We've got to empower the people. And this is what we're doing.

GOODWYN: In addition to the six trucks in Austin, Graham recently planted two trucks in San Antonio, and earlier this year his first truck in New Orleans. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

CHADWICK: Just ahead on the show: searching for cattle amid the massive snowdrifts and the canyons of Colorado. Ranchers worry they might not reach their hungry stock for days, and then it may be too late.

Unidentified Woman: They can last about 10 to 14 days without food, and the cattle that are in our remote area haven't had - we haven't been there for a week tomorrow. So it's getting into the crucial time within the next week that we get to them.

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