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Over SXSW, 'Street Treats' Snack Carts Put Homeless to Work

Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News
Coffee and snack wagons are giving some homeless people in Austin a source of income.

Can homeless people pedal their way into a home? An Austin nonprofit certainly hopes so. 

It also hopes to capitalize on the large crowds drawn to town for South by Southwest. So, during the festival, the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes equipped a group of homeless people with foot-powered snack-vending carts and uniforms. The new business is called Street Treats, and the vendors get to keep the profits.

The streets of downtown Austin are bustling this week with people displaying an array of hairstyles and fashion statements as they rush to catch their next SXSW music act.

Dane Duhon wheels along selling coffee. He’s dressed in khaki corduroy pants and suspenders that read “Street Treats.” Duhon is homeless. Not long ago he held a full-time job at a chemical plant in Mississippi and had a stable family, all of them living under one roof. 

“During Hurricane Rita everything fell apart – my house blew away, me and my wife had problems, we got divorced and ended up on the street about a year ago,” Duhon said.

For a long time after he arrived in Austin, Duhon had no support system. But a couple of weeks ago, things changed.

“I was flying a sign, and this van from Mobile Loaves and Fishes pulled up at the red light and asked if I wanted a job instead of flying, and I’m like, ‘Please – let’s go.’”

He immediately put on the uniform, suspenders and all, and began rotating between the four food carts equipped by Mobile Loaves and Fishes. One sells coffee, the others ice cream, snacks and cold drinks.

“Cart operators get to keep the profits – about half of what they sell – and any tips,” said Stephanie Esmus with Mobile Loaves and Fishes. And about those uniforms, Esmus says she was going for a retro look.

“There is an invisibility that comes to being a panhandler or begging, and as soon as we put them in the Street Treats uniform, most people don’t know that they’re homeless, most people don’t know that this program is creating income opportunities for the homeless,” Esmus said.

Mark Flores was just looking for a quick jolt before he caught the next SXSW event and didn’t know he was supporting a cause. “It’s a really good idea – people need coffee,” Flores said. “Lord knows I need coffee after last night.”

The goal for now is to roll the carts out every time there’s a big event in Austin. Duhon’s first goal is more short-term.

“Going to Sandy’s and eating the biggest, baddest burger that I can find at that sucker,” he said. “I haven’t had a hamburger in so long – it’s hamburger night tonight.”

His next goal is saving enough to afford a mobile home from Mobile Loaves and Fishes. That costs $550 a month.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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