Down a bumpy road and up a muddy path is an overgrown patch of trees. Through the trees and around a bend is a four-foot by eight-foot wooden box. Inside the box, just before dawn, a middle-aged man is getting ready to go to work on an early January morning. The temperature is well below freezing and the world around his box is covered in frost. Instead of a morning shower he uses wet-wipes. For breakfast he eats a couple of Pop Tarts. He steps out into the morning and begins the mile-long walk from his camp to his job. People are watching him and he’s determined not to let them down.
A mile away, Fred Teague awakes in another wooden box in another camp trying to understand what it’s like to be that man. For the next thirty days Fred — a local business owner, husband, and father — will live the life of a homeless man. No money. No house. No options. He will live off of resources provided by the community, but continue to get up each morning and keep his businesses and the Russ Buss operating. It is what will become known to thousands of people across social media as Fred’s 30-day challenge. And when he wasn’t at work, you could find him walking down the road to eat at the mission or sitting alone in a truck stop to stay warm.
He told me, “I realized that I’ve been working with the homeless for the past three years, and really, I have no idea what they’re experiencing. I want to try and get a better understanding of what their lives are really like.”
Fred is one of the founders of The Russ Bus, a local homeless advocacy group and division of One Inc. Started three years ago by him and Ashley Francis, The Russ Bus philosophy in working with the local homeless population is simple: find the one who is neglected and forgotten and help them find a permanent way out of their situation. They don’t consider the homeless population they work with to be clients but rather friends.
Over the past few years, groups across Arkansas have helped shine light on the homeless populations across the state. People often equate homelessness with what they’ve witnessed in larger cities — people sleeping on sidewalks and panhandling at busy intersections. However, rural poverty and homelessness often take on a different form with people and families sleeping in cars or winding up in low-rent hotels. Because of this, these people often go unnoticed by the general public.
In other words, the rural homeless are often a group of people who live within the shadows of everyday life. They are the ghosts in our midst. “One of the biggest misconceptions people have of the homeless around here is that they’re just a bunch of lazy people sleeping on sidewalks.” Fred said. “That’s not true at all. What we have in Russellville is a population of working homeless. They get up and go to work just like the rest of us. The only difference is that they don’t have a home to go home to.”
The causes of homelessness are complicated because every person has their own particular story. Some are feeling consequences of their own life choices. Some are because of mental illness. Some have simply fallen through the cracks. The risk is that a short span of living on the streets can become chronic if the issue isn’t addressed.
For all the accolades, there is a darker side to the Russ Bus work that carries with it physical and emotional baggage. Anyone who works with people on the fringes of society sees things on a weekly basis that most of us would like to pretend don’t exist. They see the tangible effects of drug addiction. They see children malnourished and cold. They see abuse. They see people who have simply given up. They see people who’ve become oblivious to their own situation. They see the darker side of humanity.
It is at this very axis, at their lowest point, that many homeless people find their “friends.” This is when Fred and The Russ Bus team step in and do something extraordinary. They do something that very few of us are willing to do. They go all in.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Giving to charity is necessary for those organizations to exist. But giving to charity is easy. We often take what we don’t want or don’t need, stick it in a box and send it on its way. We feel better about ourselves. Or we take a trip, mingle with the locals, snap a few pictures, spend a couple of days working and a couple of days sightseeing then come home and back to our lives. This isn’t to say that those things aren’t valuable. Very often those experiences open our eyes to realities we had never considered. But what it seldom does is inconvenience us. It doesn’t drag us out of bed at two in the morning. It doesn’t have us working in an ice storm to make sure our friends are safe. It doesn’t leave you at the ER with someone who got beat up. It doesn’t have us getting up in the face of a guy who’s done nothing to improve their situation. It doesn’t put us in a position where we’re committed to an individual from that point on.
This is where charity goes out the window and gut wrenching, soul-searching, life changing work takes place. And this is where you’ll find Fred. I’ve been with him during some of these moments and this is one of the things that is most striking. If you’re not willing to have hard conversations with people, if you’re not willing to get in their face, get them moving, and hold them accountable, you can’t really say that you’re caring for them.
When asked if it was uncomfortable confronting people, Fred said not at all. “There was this one time that we found a family living in a car behind the hospital. We got them in a motel and a week later I found out that the dad hadn’t done anything all week. Nothing. He didn’t try to find a job. He just sat there in the room.”
What came next, Fred said he wasn’t proud of. “I berated him in front of his wife and children.” One of the kids later asked his dad why he didn’t say anything back. “Because it was all true,” he said.
It’s easy to get a coupon for a free meal or a night’s stay at a motel if you know where to go. But we have to understand that these aren’t solutions. Solutions break the cycles of addiction. Solutions keep people from becoming chronically homeless. And sometimes solutions mean letting people experience the discomfort of living with the decisions they’ve made. There’s a reason they put people in micro-cabins. They’re dry, they’re warm and they’re secure. But what they aren’t is too comfortable. After only a few nights sleeping in one, Fred found this out first hand. “The walls start closing in on you and you know this isn’t home.” The point is that this is only a shelter. This is just temporary. You need to go through the process of putting your life back together. The pain we experience in life, if channeled appropriately, can be the exact motivation needed to bring the change needed to escape it.
“Unless you let them go through the process, you’re not loving them,” Fred told me. Recently, someone offered to rent an apartment for a family and Fred told them no. At least not until the adults in the family got jobs. “You can get a voucher that will pay your rent for three months, but if you don’t have your act together what’s going to happen on the fourth month? You’re going to lose your apartment,” Fred said. “The people who donate to us get up and go to work every single morning. I think they should expect the people we deal with to do the same.”
The Russ Bus doesn’t follow a particular formula. They look at every situation and try to come up with the best solution. Sometimes it means the person is sleeping in a tent. Sometimes it’s a micro-cabin. Sometimes it’s a hotel room. But it’s always accompanied by the resources and accountability needed to get them back on their feet. “You have to get involved, but you also have to defend them. This is a group of people who get up every single day and put one foot in front of another battling all sorts of things,” Fred said. And while he may be tough on them at times, just like a good coach, Fred is always in their corner cheering them on. In many cases The Russ Bus team are the only people offering support. Each night during the challenge Fred would post a video on Facebook talking about the day and the obstacles it held. And though he had an audience on social media, one thing was clear – he was alone in that box in the same way so many he helps have been. Often, family and friends are non-existent in the world of the homeless. The reasons why vary but the loneliness and lack of support remains. We often think of poverty in terms of money, but the poverty of isolation can be just as crippling.
Many Russ Bus friends get back on their feet. Some don’t. Some they have to let go. They don’t stop caring, but sometimes the assistance they give has to change until the person is ready to take the steps necessary to change themselves.
Fred is a man of faith. “My theology is simple: love God, love people. That’s it. And love cannot not do something.” During the challenge, his son’s bible study group labeled him “Homeless Batman.” It’s oddly appropriate. When someone gets involved on this level, when someone sacrifices so much of their own life for the service of others, it’s exhausting. When that person also has a family, runs two businesses and decides to live in a 32-square-foot box for a month so he can better understand the plight of the homeless, it’s heroic. But Fred doesn’t want this story to be about him. He didn’t want the challenge to be about him, but rather the homeless friends he was trying to better understand. “I was never homeless. I was fake homeless. I could have gone home any time,” Fred said. What Fred wants people to understand is that there are so many people living in the shadows of our world who don’t have that luxury. There are those who will have to claw and scrape their way back up.
A couple of weeks into the challenge we tried to sit down and talk about the experience, but every hour he’d call and tell me it would be another hour before he could get there. Then another. Then late that night, while I was talking to him on the phone, he saw a guy walking down the street. “Hang on… I really need to go check on him. Do you think we could do this another night?”
On this morning, we’re meeting at Waffle House for breakfast. He’s just finished the challenge and though his enthusiasm never waivers, the man looks tired. Not tired in the way someone looks after staying up all night, but tired in a deeper sense. It’s the kind of tired that ages a person, the weariness of a man living on the streets. It’s mental and physical exhaustion compounded by a continuous lack of a good night’s sleep or hot shower. Over the next few hours his phone must have gone off over 20 times from different people trying to call and text him. This is the kind of tired that can shorten lives.
What’s become apparent for him and the Russ Bus team is that it’s time to make a change. It’s time to let some of this go. Partially, for his own health, but mostly because he’s realized that The Russ Bus can do so much more and he’s currently holding it back. “We’re trying to fill the gaps in the services we provide for our friends. We simply don’t have the ability to do it all on our own anymore.” So taking their cue from One Inc.’s founder, Aaron Reddin, they’re working to develop teams to share the load. “It’s time to let go and that’s going to be hard,” he told me. In the face of what seems to be a never-ending stream of homelessness, they have plans. Transitional housing is a big project they want to tackle. But all of this takes money and organization. And it’s time for The Russ Bus to evolve to meet that need.
As we left I asked him if he was going home to bed and he said, no. He had work to do. And so as I watched him get in his old work truck and answer yet another phone call, I thought again that the Homeless Batman title was fitting. Perhaps not the hero we expected or wanted, but the hero we need. The one walking alone down the street. The one eating lunch at the mission. The one trying to stay warm on a January night. The one who reminds us all that there is still much love and work to be done.