It all starts with roughly $700 per month. That is what Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF) has determined it takes for one person’s basic living expenses in Austin Texas in 2013. “That gets them off the street and into basic shelter, pays for their food and bus transportation for a month. That is the bottom line,” said Nate Schlueter, director of ROADS, a micro-enterprise program run by MLF.
“When we thought in terms of ‘lifting people out of poverty’ it was too difficult a goal -- poverty level is officially $19,000. That was not the place to start.” The place to start was to find ways for people to consistently make $700 per month. So Schlueter and MLF developed businesses that could be a “leg up” for people living on the streets by providing a basic income and an opportunity to plan their lives. One such example, called Street Treats, involves a bicycle-mounted ice cream cart, which can be a vendor at music festivals and other special events. More opportunities to earn income include a workshop to create items that can be sold at local crafts fairs--things like birdhouses, chairs and tables, and pottery. Schlueter said ROADS was developing an auto salvage yard where junked cars will be stripped for parts and then the parts sold to the public.
“What we do is provide the blocking and tackling,” said Schlueter. “It takes at least $5,000 to develop a micro-enterprise opportunity due to regulations, permits and other expenses. The Street Treats cart alone cost another $5,000, and the uniforms the vendors wear is another expense. We create things like Street Treats and the Workshop to make our city a better place and to provide dignity to people experiencing homelessness. The workers get all the money for their labor -- we do not take a cut. We’ve never had a Street Treats vendor make less than $15 per hour, and they can make as much as $27 per hour with tips.” The acronym ROADS stands for “Relationships and Opportunities to provide Dignity and Security.” It is a program funded through private donations.
I spoke with Robert, who has struggled with cocaine addiction, about finding his way back with the help of MLF and Nate Schlueter. Robert learned of MLF through their food trucks, which feed 1,000 Austin residents per day. He started talking to the workers on the trucks and they invited them to come and work with them as they built a warehouse. Working at the warehouse with MLF staff, he began to refurbish broken tables and build coffee tables. He thinks the micro-enterprise program is great. “Keep a positive attitude and go out and make it happen. These guys will constantly give you an opportunity.”
Robert now works as a chef at Hat Creek Hamburgers, a job that ROADS helped him find. He lives in housing also provided by MLF through their Community First program. “All I know is that I do not want to go back out on the street. I remember talking to a friend of mine when I was still struggling, and he said he didn’t understand why God would make a drug like crack and make it available to us. I still don’t know the answer to that.”
But Robert does know good food, and he also works in Genesis Garden, an organic garden affiliated with MLF. “Making food, that is who I am. Hat Creek Hamburgers -- we are the best,” he said with a confident smile.
Robert’s smile was a reminder of why Nate Schlueter began a micro-enterprise opportunity for people experiencing homelessness. Schlueter, a devout Christian, went looking for homeless people who appeared to be living in the woods near his neighborhood. He didn’t have a plan; he just wanted to make contact, develop a relationship. It is an intimate, practical process in outreach to people experiencing homelessness because the message gets sent that someone cares for them and their well-being. “They never asked me for money. I went back and we ate dinner, we talked, I went back some more. I realized they were talented but they did not have the same opportunities -- there were addiction issues, mental health issues, they weren’t presentable due to lack of access to a shower. This made them unemployable. So I invited some of them to come to my house to make some birdhouses for a craft fair. We made $400 the first time out. The next week there was 18 people in my driveway.” An idea was born. To date, ROADS has worked with 60 people, “some more frequently than others,” as Nate Schlueter put it.
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