Richer By Far: Developer Now Helps the HomelessApr 10, 2009
by Susan Crandell
photo by Ales Kartal
Attending a spiritual retreat inspired real estate developer Alan Graham to remake his life feeding Austin’s homeless
Alan’s Lesson: There’s a deeper satisfaction in doing good work than making good money—a simple lesson that’s tough to learn in your twenties and thirties.
Alan Graham was living a typical American life, albeit a quite enviable one. A real estate business he’d started in his twenties had made him and his wife wealthy enough to buy a home in Austin’s toniest suburb with their four children. In his mid-thirties, he’d returned to the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood and begun attending church regularly. Now he truly seemed to have it all, a life rich in both spirituality and material things.
A Surprising Awakening
That would have been Alan’s life story if he hadn’t attended a spiritual renewal retreat the year he turned forty-one. He very nearly didn’t go. “Had I known it would be a bunch of guys holding hands and praying, no way I would have signed up,” he says. And at first he was embarrassed as the men began to talk about their emotions and their interior lives, hugging each other and crying. “My intimacy with men had been limited to hunting and fishing, talking trash about girls, and sports.” To his surprise, he found the retreat liberating, and he signed up to lead the next one. During that second weekend, the idea was born that would turn his life inside out.
“At this point in my career, I was developing air cargo facilities at airports across the U.S. Things were going pretty doggone good.” At the second retreat, he had the vision for a very different venture for which he would ultimately abandon his thriving real estate business. “I had this image in my mind of a catering truck delivering meals to the homeless,” Alan says. “It just wouldn’t go away.” When he mentioned the idea to friends, they offered to help, and a plan started to take shape. “But we wondered, Can a bunch of white guys from West Lake Hills, the higher-income zip code in Austin, feed the homeless?” Then Alan met a real expert, someone who would prove indispensable to launching the new organization. Houston Flake was a homeless man who’d begun to work as a janitor at Alan’s church. “Befriending Houston was a godsend,” Alan recalls.
At a planning meeting at the law office of one of Alan’s friends, Houston shook his head at the finery, saying, “After we eat, I want to take you to my conference room.” They drove to a downtrodden part of town where a 60-year-old woman sat on a patch of dirt, smoking and drinking a beer. “The closer we got, the uglier and more homeless this woman looked,” Alan says. “But Houston walked right up and gave her a hug. I’m thinking she’s full of cooties. And I realized that Houston represents everything I pretend to be but know I’m not. He took my hand and walked me through a wall of prejudice.”
Mobile Loaves and Fishes: A Matter of Dignity
Houston was also with Alan on the September evening in 1998 that Mobile Loaves & Fishes was born, when they took a carload of sack lunches to homeless people in downtown Austin. Soon they’d raised twenty-five thousand dollars from friends and fellow churchgoers, enough to buy a used truck and have a catering bed built on the back. Mobile Loaves & Fishes provisions are purchased from wholesale suppliers with donated money. Alan avoids leftovers. “Fruit? Milk? Fritos? When our truck pulls up, people can choose. It’s a matter of dignity.”
The concept took off. Alan trolled for volunteers at Mass one Sunday, expecting to interest ten or twenty people. A hundred fifty signed up. Six years later, Mobile Loaves & Fishes has five thousand volunteers running six trucks, delivering 140,000 meals a year. “You would never pick me out of a lineup and say, ‘This is the guy to start a nonprofit to feed the homeless,’” Alan says. “But I was chosen by God to do this because I had good skills—marketing, raising money, managing projects.” One crucial ability was knowing his way around a desktop. “I got some technical help and developed a Web site with database tools that manage the operation so well, I’m the only full-time employee.”
Less Is More
Leaving the real estate business three years ago has drastically changed the Grahams’ finances. They still live in the fancy zip code, but “My family now lives on the modest salary I take. We have no savings.” The whole household pitches in at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, and his kids are okay with their leaner, more spiritual life. “My sixteen-year-old daughter probably struggles with it the most,” Alan says. “She’d like to have a fancy car.” His oldest son is in Germany, helping plan World Youth Day, a Roman Catholic convocation. “He’s very spiritual. When I was eighteen, I wasn’t even talking to my father.”
Alan and his son recently spent three nights together on a program Alan launched called Street Retreats. “We drop people downtown with no credit cards, no money, no phone. It’s just you and God.” The first night, a homeless friend took the two Dumpster diving. They slept in alleys and parks, on bridges and sidewalks. “Strip yourself of all the material stuff, and you’ll be taken care of. That’s the message.”
It’s one that Alan himself has heeded with a vengeance. “Lately, I’ve been on a quest to get rid of all the crap I spent the previous twenty years surrounding myself with.” From his massive collection, he sold all but a few guns that he and his sons use to hunt. His fountain pens, original art, and leather-bound books (“the ones you put on the shelves to say, Look how smart I am”) have all made their way to eBay. “Sure,” he says, “I’ve had my flashes of wanting a Harley, but I’m over that.”
Mobile Loaves & Fishes has also taken Alan back into real estate with a new program, Habitat on Wheels, which furnishes homeless people with used travel trailers. “It’s affordable housing, and it’s kicking butt right now,” he says proudly.
What’s sent Alan on this extreme journey of caring? His difficult childhood may hold a clue. “I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family. My mother had serious mental health problems, and my father divorced her when I was four. I lived with my mom, moving to my dad’s whenever she was hospitalized. She was nurturing, and Dad was the disciplinarian. Together, they would have been great, but separately it was a disaster.” Alan ran away when he was seventeen, and by eleventh grade had a part-time job and his own apartment. Ultimately, he reconciled with his father, but the years alone made him independent and gave him compassion for people who draw the short straw in life.
"I Don't Miss Real Estate"
In those go-go real estate years, he’d done volunteer work, but in those days there was an agenda. “I was always networking, looking to meet people who could advance my business, always asking ‘How could this benefit me?’” Now he feels a moral imperative to help—especially as a boomer. “I’m not proud of our generation. A lot of us walked away from core ethical and moral values. Look at the Enron and MCI scandals, the abject cheating in high school and college.” And, he says, midlife was absolutely the right time to turn this corner in his life. “I can’t see it happening to me any sooner. I don’t look back and say, ‘Boy, I wish I had a do-over.’ I had a great time at eighteen. That’s the direction in which God took my life, and those experiences formed me into the person I am today.” You can cruise the Mobile Loaves & Fishes Web site without spotting his name, and that’s intentional. “I spent most of my life trying to get people to look at me. Now I want people to see the work Christ is doing through me.
“I don’t know if this is my midlife crisis, but I love what I’m doing and I don’t miss my real estate career.”
Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of the book Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.
Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.