by Andrew Shapter (Huffington Post)
Posing with Santa Claus at Christmas is one of those great American traditions that we hold dear. Each year, every kid, smiling or crying, from one to 92 lines up in malls and shopping centers across the country to have their photo snapped with the jolliest, most famous, red-suited, white-bearded philanthropist on the planet. It's a magical time when kids are encouraged to dream as big as they can, and for families to have a keepsake that they can cherish for generations to come. But when all of the photos have been taken, and all of the wish lists have been heard and guaranteed on a "naughty or nice" basis, most families go back to their homes for a long winter's nap, and most "Santas" pack up the suit, take off the beard, and call it a day until next December. But for one Santa in Austin, Texas, every day is Christmas.
His real name is Alan Graham, and for the past 11 years, as co-founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes he has taken his role to heart. Today, armed with a fleet of 13 trucks, an uncanny resemblance to St. Nick and an unconditional love for his fellow man, Graham is one of the toughest soldiers leading the fight to end homelessness in America, and his mission to serve this country's less fortunate is as unwavering as his dedication to a higher calling. Catching up with Alan and his team of volunteers on the eve of a holiday season that will see a significant increase in the number of homeless families in need of food and shelter, I asked him to share his thoughts on the concept of Christmas 365 days a year and how we as Americans can change the state of homelessness in this country by not only facing our fears, but by changing our attitudes about the homeless.
How many times have you been Santa Claus for the holidays?
Funny you should ask. I actually began playing Santa when I was 15 years old back in Alvin, Texas. I was hired to play Santa at an old Gibson's department store. The next year they actually flew me in on a helicopter. I gained a reputation and started to play Santa for some of the mentally challenged folks who lived in my town.
What did you do before Mobile Loaves & Fishes?
I was in the real estate development business. Particularly towards the end of this part of my life I was focused on developing air cargo facilities on airports around the U.S. When did Mobile Loaves & Fishes get its start? The idea germinated in the Spring/Summer of 1998. My wife Tricia and I were having coffee with a friend of ours who was telling us about a ministry in Corpus Christi where multiple churches would come together on cold winter nights to distribute resources to the brothers and sisters who lived on the streets. It was at this moment that the idea of a catering truck as a distribution vehicle entered my conscious mind. <em>What did it take to get started? Acting on the idea. That simple really. Once I began to share the idea with others the concept just took off.
Do you remember your first day?
First, we had to prove that this was something we could do. So on October 13th, 1998 six of us loaded up 75 sack meals into the back of my buddy's green mini-van and hit the streets of Austin. Our first stop we ran into a homeless couple who lost their friend the night before to an accident. They were awash in grieving and there we were at this most appropriate time in their lives and ours. We have never looked back since.
Do you have any prior experience dealing with the homeless? Does it require training?
None really. Unless you recall the time in about 1981 when my then girlfriend, now wife, Tricia was accosted and panhandled by a homeless man in downtown Austin as being experience. I was incensed and berated this poor fellow telling him to get a job and lift himself out of his pathetic situation. I thought I was being righteous but realized later I was being an ass. No training required. It is on-the-job training. Just care about other people.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the homeless?
I would say that the biggest misconception is that they are lazy, drug addicts and choose to be this way. Nothing can be further from the truth. I tell people that in all the years I have been doing this I have never and I mean NEVER come across anyone who chooses homelessness as a lifestyle choice. Accepting, yes. Choice, no. In terms of being lazy I can tell you that it is quite the opposite. Having spent many, many nights on the streets I have found that the homeless are quite resilient and resourceful and the opposite of lazy. I often half seriously joke that if Armageddon hits we all need to leave the comforts of home and find the homeless population; you will survive there. Drug addicts? This particular segment of our population is infected with this disease too. The U.S. Conference of Mayors study on homelessness found that 25 percent of the homeless population battles issues of addictions. That also means that 75 percent don't battle this disease.
People have told me that they are often conflicted about what they should do when they encounter a homeless person. There is often suspicion about what the homeless person is really up to. Some question if the homeless person is being honest about what they really need. How do you know when to help and when not to?
Just saw a three panel cartoon the other day. Homeless person holding a sign that says "Being honest and I just need a drink". Next panel shows a fellow handing over some money and saying that they appreciate the honesty then in the third panel the homeless person is at the local fast food joint getting a bite to eat with the recently "dishonestly" acquired funds. We send out mixed signals and like Madison Avenue they play to that. Kind of like GM implying that if we buy that new red Corvette that the blonde babe will come along too. Say that your generosity is between you and your God. We pray that our generosity will be used for positive purposes but we really can never control that. And frankly the person may have a wife and child just out of our sight and they need formula and diapers but if I only focus on the negative -- that they will buy drugs, alcohol or tobacco -- then I miss the opportunity to help really fill the need. I say, let them carry the burden of how they use our generosity. I don't want to be oppressed by the fear of being "scammed" out of my dollar. Help when your heart says to help and leave it at that.
Most of the homeless population in the U.S. are concentrated in urban areas, so if you could address all the city mayors at once, what would you tell them?
If you want to understand homelessness you MUST first understand what H-O-M-E is! In the ground breaking book "Beyond Homeless" the authors talk about the phenomenology of home and that there are eight characteristics of home. Home is a place of permanence. Home is a dwelling place. Home is a storied place. Home is a place of hospitality. Home is a safe resting place. Home is a place of orientation. Home is a place of embodied inhabitation. And Home is a place of affiliation and belonging. Our political leaders do not have a clue what HOME really is, and so will never be able to address the real causes of homelessness. They must come to grips with this. Go to MLFNOW to learn more about what HOME means.
How has your experience working with Mobile Loaves & Fishes changed you?
Profoundly! Really hard to articulate this but the past 11 years have been transforming in many ways.
Your story appears in my new documentary called Happiness Is, so does serving the homeless actually make you happy?
I often say that if there were a Fortune 500 for the happiest people on the planet I would have to be in consideration for the top spot. Happy? More than I have ever been. Serving PERIOD makes you happy. Serving is the happy drug. Take some and get hooked!
If someone wants to help the homeless but they are not sure what to do or where to go, what advice do you have for them?
Begin big by rolling down your tinted windows and saying hello. Start there and repeat as often as possible and then see where that leads. It is that simple yet profound. yet profound.
Watch him in action...