Pure joy, for Alan Graham, means being out on the streets on a cold night with the poor, the down-trodden, the abandoned, the neglected.
Since he began his Mobile Loaves & Fishes ministry to help the homeless, Graham estimates he’s spent about 150 nights on the streets for “Street Retreats,” which the organization uses to teach people about the experience of living as a homeless person. During each of these retreats, he runs into homeless people he’s met in the past who remember him and the help he and his organization have lent them.
“It makes me proud that no matter where I go, I have the same impact,” Graham said.
On Wednesday, Graham will be surrounded by very different company when he accepts the 2016 Austinite of the Year Award from the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Past award winners include Kirk Watson, Ann Richards, Roland Swenson and Michael and Susan Dell.
Graham will be recognized for his work as the co-founder and chief executive officer of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which has served more than 4 million meals to people since its founding in 1998 and which recently started work on a 27-acre master planned community in Austin that will provide affordable housing for chronically homeless people.
The community will also offer programs to help residents with problems that often afflict the homeless community, such as alcohol or substance abuse and mental illnesses.
“The Community First Village is a place where people can come and continue to build relationships,” Graham said. “Housing will never solve homelessness but community will.”
After a successful career in real estate, Graham followed a calling and devoted his life to helping the city’s homeless. That calling is rooted in his Roman Catholic faith and on the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who renounced his wealthy upbringing and lived a life of poverty devoted to God. It is from one of Francis’ teachings that Graham takes his notion of “pure joy.”
Graham believes he’s doing God’s work by helping the less fortunate, but he rarely mentions religion to the people he helps unless asked.
“I’m not a proselytizer,” he says. “I like to go by a saying attributed to St. Francis that says: ‘Speak the Gospel often, and if necessary, use words.’”
In his work, Graham aims to look beyond a person’s outward appearance to better help the person within, who may be struggling with problems that are not evident, he said. He wants to be a “stereotype buster,” whether that be stereotypes based on race, sexuality or, of course, social status, he said.
When some Travis County residents opposed the building of his Community First Village because it would attract homeless people that they believed would lower property values in the area, Graham pushed back.
“When did we move to a society where we value property values more than human values?” he said.
Never one to back down, he takes people as they come, and they, in turn, accept him as he is. He foregoes the suit and tie of a businessman for jeans, a simple shirt that often carries a Mobile Loaves & Fishes logo and a baseball cap. He can quote scripture and clarify questions over Catholic catechism (he keeps a book on the subject near his desk), but also curses on a whim and sits down for beers with folks.
And it’s that acceptance and down-to-earth quality, his friends say, that have made him so successful in the work he does.
“He’s very real as a person,” said Gene Austin, of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “He knows all aspects of life. He’s witnessed it with the people he’s helped from homelessness and professionally. But he’s a very real and very spiritual man. … He can connect with almost any individual.”
For more information on Mobile Loaves & Fishes visit www.mlf.org.
Alan Graham will receive his award at the 138th annual meeting of the Austin Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.