Historic 6th Street, Austin, TX, greets new visitors with a downtown atmosphere that rivals the hippest of cities we’ve visited so far across 23 states. Neon walls line storefronts on both sides and foot traffic moves steadily up and down – the shiny, polished side of what really is a gem of a city.
In a short walk down 6th Street, we brushed elbows with more tattooed, cooler than us 20-somethings than we’d seen since Portland, their hair perfectly unkempt and clothes just vintage enough. But just as prominent as the Austin hipster was a group of people just as noticeable but less advertised: Austin’s homeless.
They were men and women, young and old, of all colors. Some leaned against the walls of businesses emptied at the close of another 9 to 5. Others laid sleeping wherever their tired bodies demanded. Some appeared happy and full of energy. Others had sad sunken eyes. It was impossible not to imagine that every one of those faces had a story. Stories as long our own with equally complicated twists and colorful subplots.
We carried on down 6th Street, paralyzed into inaction by the enormity of the situation. How do you decide who, how, or when to help? We didn’t have answers. As we continued on, the wafting smell of Roppolo's Pizzeria beckoned us off the street. Nate stood at an outdoor counter eyeing his options. A man on a bike rolled up beside him. “Hey buddy, could you spare some change? I got a wife I’m taking care of…” Before he could finish, an employee behind the counter asked the approaching man to move along. “You just can’t park it in front of the shop. You’ve got to move along, man,” he said. Without major confrontation, the man pedaled away, his story untold.
Nate walked inside and joined Shane. Another employee had scooped up all remaining pizza behind the glass into some of the largest pizza boxes we’d ever seen. “What’s going on?” Nate asked. Shane responded with a grin as Nate overheard one worker tell another, “Yeah, they just bought all of it. Yeah, seriously.” The worker continued by filling a grocery bag with bottles of cold water.
Pizza boxes in hand, the two soon found themselves under a nearby bridge – the home for an entire community, in the shadows but not forgotten. Pizza and water disappeared to grateful hands. Nate approached a thin, short-haired woman sitting on some blankets, a shopping cart beside her. “Would you like some water?” he asked. “I already got one, but I’d take one for my husband,” she replied with a smile. “Thank you for doing this. Some people just don’t even know we exist down here,” she said. Nate sat down to chat.
The woman extended her hand and introduced herself as Brooke. Shortly after, a man approached on bike. “This is my husband, Beau,” she said. “Nice to meet you, Beau. I’m Nate.” “Yeah, I already met you,” Beau replied. Confused, Nate asked for clarification. “I asked you for some change at the pizza place when that guy told me to leave.” Unbelievable. We talk so often of these serendipitous moments, and there is nothing more powerful than knowing you were supposed to cross paths with someone. Beau sat. He and Brooke told their story, one filled with love and trust, ups and downs. Their immediate needs were simple: a place to sleep and something to eat. But beyond those were humanizing needs: a restroom and someone who would listen. Brooke continued, “People will drop food, but no one ever stays to talk. Never.”
We spent over an hour talking with Beau and Brooke that night. To us, they put real faces to an issue we often minimize to a single word. Yes, they were without a home. But they were no less.
To Bill Q… You approached my parents with a donation last summer because you believed in what we were doing across this country. Well, today we can tell you that we believe in what you did and have to thank you for it. You not only provided food for some great people in Austin, but you opened our eyes to something bigger than our own needs. And for that we truly thank you.
To Gayle H… Because of your donation we were able to see and hear the realities so many live each day. But not only did we experience this face to face, you helped us share this experience with everyone reading this. Today you did some good. And we have no doubt that good will be the catalyst for even more. Thank you for your trust and support!