Today I want to tell the story of Alvin, a man I met in midtown Houston. Alvin is homeless, but he taught me more about joy and the value of life than any person I've encountered.
Alvin's story is unfortunately not unique. Statistics estimate that nearly 10,000 people will go to sleep without a home tonight in Harris County alone. The city is a haven for the homeless because it lacks extreme cold temperatures. It's also a place where opportunity and prosperity are on the rise. As our city rises, we must lift our homeless along with the tide.
Unfortunately that goal is being challenged by a number of factors. Among them is an April Houston City Council decision that made it harder for individuals to feed homeless people. This came just one year after a study found that the Houston homeless population had risen by 25 percent. The problem is not just limited to adults, either. Down in Galveston, more than 650 elementary school students are thought to be homeless. We often turn a blind eye, content to pass these people on our way to the bar, where we spend five dollars for a lukewarm Bud Light. If only these statistics had a face, we might start to fix the problem.
I hope you will see that Alvin is special. He's important to me because he put a face on poverty. He is a picture of the people who find themselves struggling on our streets each night.
When I first met Alvin, I was leaving a local bar. He was outside, putting on a small performance for people on the street. You see, Alvin has talent. His ability to sing can be best compared to a combination of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Marvin Gaye. More impressively, he takes requests. If there's a song you want sung, Alvin can do it. And he does it with a smile on his face.
On this night, Alvin wasn't looking for donations. In fact, I never heard him ask. He just wanted to interact with people and share his gift. Even as some rude onlookers taunted Alvin, he performed to a small group of people who just wanted to hear more. All in all, we spent around 30 minutes listening to the man. At the time, I told him that he had a gift. It wasn't until later than I understood how much Alvin had to offer.
A couple of weeks later, I ran into Alvin again. This time, we talked about his background. What happened to you, man? How did you get here? Alvin told me of his criminal history - he had beaten up a man who threatened his daughter. He told me of the hurdles that people face when they finally get out of jail. He told me how he got a much longer sentence because he couldn't afford anything other than a court-appointed attorney. Alvin told me that he had done some wrong, but he just wanted another chance. He talked about his children and how he loves them very much. He told me that his daughter had his voice. I don't know where she is, but I'm certain she's singing with pride.
In following up with Alvin, I learned of his childhood. He hadn't had the easiest path, growing up in a low-income neighborhood. He said he had worked hard in school, but college wasn't a reality in his family. In fact, he said he never knew that college was even a possibility for his life. I asked Alvin what he would have studied. I expected him to say music, or drama, or some kind of performance art. Alvin told me that he would have studied history. As a history degree holder myself, I was able to identify with this man. He told me of how he had grown up in the middle of the civil rights movement. We talked for a while about his experiences - the things he had seen and the truths he had uncovered. I quickly found Alvin to be more than just a voice. He had a mind, as well.
Understanding his voice and his mind, I came to see that Alvin had a big heart. He never got aggressive with people he talked to. At some points, he would ask for help. If people turned him down, he would wish them well and sing a song anyway. Often times, he would carry around a bucket full of cleaning supplies. He would offer to clean your car. I once trusted Alvin to clean my car later in a night. When I returned to my vehicle, it was spotless and shining. He told me the next time we met that he had given it his "special touch." Alvin had a heart over his own homeless population. Not content in his circumstances, he asked me if I had any ideas on what might help the homeless people in Houston. He implored me to summon some help for these people: "You can write," he said. "Send something to the papers or get the television out here." He constantly reminded me that "these people need help."
Even in his difficult circumstances, Alvin continues to care about people. He has taken something of a leadership role within his community structure. He shared some of the things that homeless people care about and worry about. He intimated to me the daily struggle that accompanies survival. Most people - myself included - will never have to expend a huge amount of energy just to stay alive. For people who call the street their home, even avoiding hit-and-run accidents is a daily concern. When a homeless Harris County man was killed by a car in August, it served as a sobering reminder of the dark reality. For Alvin and people like him, the first challenge is staying safe.
The general struggles of Houston's homeless are crystallized when you see the specifics. Alvin would like to use shelters, but he makes money performing at night. Often he sleeps beneath a bridge in midtown. One night when I spoke with him, he was planning on calling it an early one so that he could snag a bench in one of the safer parts of midtown. He worried about the weather, but accepted his own helplessness in the matter. Alvin doesn't have a food plan. He eats when he eats. That typically depends upon how much money he raises. I was especially shocked by Alvin's primary worry - his clothes. He is a man who values his appearance. He wears a pair of athletic shorts and a simple t-shirt. He has a good pair of shoes, a real necessity for a man who spends most of his life on his feet. Occasionally he has to decide between spending his small amount of money on food or cleaning his clothes. This is the type of decision that punctuates the daily struggle for someone in Alvin's position. He is often forced to make the decision between personal dignity or survival. Still, Alvin forges on, undeterred by the seemingly hopeless homeless life that he leads.
His biggest point was about hope. See, Alvin understands that he is special. Despite what many would call debilitating circumstances, this is a man who still sees the good in life. He understands a life outside of himself and he understands the joys of sharing his gift with other people. He recognizes, though, that homeless people have largely lost hope. These people can't envision a future for themselves. It's just too hard.
Alvin spends each day performing a rigorous workout routine. He does hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups. He noted that his body is all he has, so he takes it very seriously. Still, he has health concerns because of his diet. Good, nutritious meals are not a reality for people in his situation. In fact, more than a sixth of American citizens are classified as undernourished. That is really just a fancy word for "hungry."
Alvin taught me something. He opened my eyes to the reality of homelessness, not just in Houston, but around the country. Alvin lives in a world where a couple of mistakes have led to a life of economic desperation. He lives in a world where the system is rigged to keep him down. Despite all of that, the system cannot take his heart, his mind, and most of all, his voice.
Alvin's voice is an amazing one. If you heard him sing, you would instantly understand that amazing talent and human value lives in the most unlikely of places. You would immediately recognize that a person's current economic status does not necessarily serve as a proxy for what that person has to offer his community, his country, and his world. Alvin's voice is bigger now. Instead of just singing songs, Alvin is using his voice to help the homeless in Houston.
By telling his story, I want to use Alvin's voice for something greater. Poverty advocate Bryan Stephenson once said that he defends criminals because he believes that every man is something more than the worst thing he has ever done. We should defend and help people like Alvin because they are worth it. Alvin is more than just the face of homelessness in our great city. He is also its voice.
I have set up a FirstGiving page to help Alvin and people like him. If you would like to contribute, you can do so here.