Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Not the Brady Bunch


This is the third in a series. Read parts one and two here.

On October 12, at the end of my first day in Eden Village, I had dinner with its founders, David and Linda Brown, compassionate retirees from medical and nursing careers. Linda asked for my impression of the residents. I said it was too early for me to say, and asked for hers. She joked, “I thought we were getting the Brady Bunch.”

The Browns began spending time with lots of unhoused people when they founded in 2010 The Gathering Tree, an evening drop-in center. Dr. Brown, now 85, said the center “opened my eyes to a whole different world. It was rare to find one person who hadn’t been abused.” The Browns became fond of some they met and didn’t like to think of them having to head out in the dark to campsites or cement. 

In 2016, Nate Schlueter and his wife Kelbi moved back to Springfield, where he had grown up. Schlueter had assisted Alan Graham in developing the Community First! tiny home village in Austin. (See my July 29 and Aug. 5, 2022, Fix Homelessness columns.) He knew how to create a smaller version in Springfield via three big steps and lots of small ones.

The three bigs: First, find a place already zoned to allow tiny homes, such as a trailer park, so as not to run into NIMBY (not in my back yard) opposition. Second, find donors and impress them not only with the counter-homelessness concept but the know-how to build a 390-square-foot home for $40,000. Third, find long-term and disabled homeless people in great need but unlikely to trash the place. 

The third is sometimes the hardest. Homelessness is physically and mentally unhealthy. The standard understanding is that adjusting to a home often takes one month of instability for each year spent on the streets. Linda Brown knew residents would have problems beyond TV comedy spats that can be fixed in a half-hour.

In 2018 and 2019 the Browns and the Schleuters made Eden Village a reality. Last October I spent time with almost all 25 residents, most of whom have been addicts or alcoholics. Most were in foster care at some point during their childhoods. Most have done jailtime, some for drugs and others for crimes ranging from felony fraud to stabbings.

Some have odd pasts and presents. One spent decades as a male prostitute and still wears different flamboyant outfits on most days. One for years refused to cut her toenails, which curled around so she was walking on their ends. One worries that someone is cooking meth under his house, even though a brick skirt surrounds it.

Eden Village resident Victor Osburn is schizophrenic.

But I relearned the importance of not making snap judgments. Victor Osburn, who is 55 and lives in 14E, said “I’m schizophrenic” and proceeded to warn me about the dangers surrounding Eden Village: “Did you see those gray wolves and bears walking around? Bears and wolves love pork sandwiches. HAHAHA…. A leopard leaned down, stretched the bars, and got loose from the zoo. He’s on a rock shelf waiting for a hitchhiker sandwich. HAHAHA.”

That sounds nutty, but Missouri did have wolves a century ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation says one may occasionally wander into the state, and the Southwest Missouri Wolves are an amateur baseball team. The MDC also says bears are making a comeback in southern Missouri and will prey on wild hogs. NBC News in 2008 reported that a sheriff’s deputy killed an escaped leopard. It seems that Osburn was tossing his fears in a big bowl and handing me some salad. Eden Village staffers tell me Victor is harmless and tries to help them in little ways: He gives aspirin as a birthday present.

Marcus Whalen, 46, lives in 13E next to Victor. Married at age 22, divorced at age 25, he has paid child support for his two children but has no contact with them. He’s worked off and on at Waffle House and doing roofing and yard work, but was mostly homeless from 2008 until last June, sleeping in the woods and under bridges, using meth: “Hard to keep a job when you don’t shower.” Whalen in October had a part-time job helping out at a church: “I come home and play Need for Speed [a “race against time, outsmart the cops” computer game]. I don’t know my neighbors…. I’ve always been a churchgoer. Raised at Second Baptist since before kindergarten, baptized in a lake at Bible camp at 16…. Proverbs is my favorite book.” He lamented, “I was designated ‘schizophrenic.’ Doesn’t mean I’m going to schiz out and hurt the kids. But I could never stay clean.”

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.