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juStin Farrow ’02
Some problemS are juSt too big, it SeemS.
If the solutions are hard or inconvenient, many of us simply live our lives and blithely sidestep the dilemma. A head in the sand, we learn all too quickly, isn’t that uncomfortable. Not for Justin Farrow ’02. He’s tackling a social issue head on and in a way that re-imagines the problem and the solution. “Most everything that people are doing to address the homeless, in my opinion, is just PR – it doesn’t go far enough,” Farrow explains. “They provide short-term fixes, like a ten-day pass to a shelter, a one-way ticket out of town or their names on a waiting list for project housing. How does any of that keep them off the street?” It’s a valid question. And the answer has been waiting for someone with Farrow’s unique life point of view. Part philosopher, part anthropologist, Farrow considers himself a participant observer, but what he really is, is a hustler. And it’s the hustler’s mentality that is the root of the solution.
In your hands is a crystal ball. Kindly flip through the pages ahead, and you will see the future. Thanks to the contributions of a handful of alumni and a graduate student, the future is bright. They represent scores of College of Charleston graduates and students improving the world through innovation and ambition. They look at the world at a slightly different angle. These men and women are bold and brave, eager to experiment. You would be right to call them pioneers. You will read about men and women seeking new solutions to old problems, including homelessness, pollution and poverty. You will read about others leveraging technology to augment communication, foster learning and promote alternative transportation. They are young and old. They live in different places around the world. Their expertise is varied. But beyond their history at the College, there is one thing they share in common. Each is shaping what is coming neXt.
After graduating with degrees in philosophy and anthropology, Farrow was heading to the Big Apple. The city is a magnet for dreamers of all backgrounds, and Farrow’s dream was to study environmental law and save the world. The first trick was to get there. And this is the awakening of Farrow’s inner hustler. He had thrown a rod in his car’s engine and was in desperate need of new transportation. A unique opportunity presented itself, allowing him to trade a $97 pallet of sod from his family’s landscaping business to a funeral home for its junkyarddestined but workable delivery van. The van became a lifeline for Farrow as he struggled to find his way in the Big City – with only $30 to his name. The van, which he lined with blue carpet found alongside a dumpster and affectionately called the “Blue Guru,” was not only his makeshift apartment for a month, it also served as a means for income.
Using free Wi-Fi connections at various cafés around Brooklyn, Farrow ran a few ads on Craigslist, offering his vehicle and his muscles to do some small moving jobs. While helping people relocate around the city, he noticed many empty apartments. Twelve evening classes later and Farrow was in the real estate game. “The majority of realtors in New York City spend a lot on advertising,” Farrow says. “I didn’t have that kind of money, so I only used the free tools available to me. At that time, I was the 400th person to sign up for MySpace, I started a real estate blog and I posted ads on Craigslist, branding myself ‘the Loft Ninja,’ a real estate super hero. A little humor can go a long way.” His humor and online efforts worked, and he started helping people, including himself, find new locations around town. With that, his dream of environmental law soon changed, but not the part of the dream about saving the world.
For most New Yorkers, the homeless are as much a part of the cityscape as a brownstone or a yellow taxi cab. Farrow, since his arrival in New York, had always had a fascination with the homeless. “I guess I identify with people on the periphery,” he admits. “I respect their ability to survive. Their stories are fascinating. For example, I met a homeless man named Joey, who claimed to be a former Mouseketeer. I drank beers with a guy called Spider while looking at street art and chatting about Einstein’s genius. I talked philosophy and Kierkegaard with a homeless woman born in Denmark. All these random encounters taught me something new.” That conversation about Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was especially poignant and enlightening. A personal hero of Farrow, Kierkegaard wrote extensively about how human indifference breeds animosity. Farrow was committed not to fall into that easy trap of apathy regarding homelessness, but rather, to care intensely – and to act boldly. “We have to realize that we are not ships passing in the night,” Farrow says. “We’re all connected somehow. For many of these people on the streets, life has just spiraled out of control. They have questions, but no way to answer them.” By this time, 2006 to be precise, Farrow was living in an old pie factory converted into loft apartments. He was still pushing real estate and a little of everything else – search engine optimization, social networking, photography, you name it. Next door was a bread factory, and as Farrow was wont to do on any given day, at any given hour, he chatted up a stranger, who was sitting in front of the bread factory. The stranger was the bread factory owner, who confided that he was having a hard time getting rid of his old bread trucks. He even had a graveyard of sorts in Queens where the trucks went into “retirement.” Wait, Farrow thought. Internet … Wi-Fi … the Blue Guru … bread trucks. It all clicked.
Farrow’s idea is pretty simple, yet revolutionary. Rather than trying to bring the homeless to one location – like a shelter or soup kitchen – why not bring the mountain to Mahomet, so to speak. And it starts with that bread truck.
With one bread truck in hand and more planned for the future, Farrow has begun the process of transforming and outfitting this vehicle into a mobile help center. “Homeless doesn’t equal helpless,” Farrow says. “If we’re able to help them take advantage of some of those free resources, like Craigslist or other online classifieds, we might bring them in off the streets for good.” Farrow hopes that this truck, like his van from years ago, can be their lifeline. It will be equipped with a highly specialized search engine, a wireless hub and donated computers so that users can access the Internet in order to look for jobs or use genealogy sites to locate family members. “We’re going to help them get e-mail,” he says. “They can use the truck as a P.O. box address and they will have access to a community voice mail. We will offer résumé-building workshops and will also have donated ‘business’ clothes for them to wear to a job interview. But that’s just the start.” Farrow envisions the bread truck, which will have a biodiesel engine and run on donated biodiesel fuel (courtesy of Tri-State Biodiesel of Brooklyn), to be an umbrella of sorts for all kinds of assistance. “I would like to see different people volunteering with the van, using and sharing whatever skills they may have,” Farrow says. “For example, we pull into Union Square, and we may have someone with technology skills helping a person locate a job, a counselor listening to a particular problem and a medical professional providing aid. Everyone can give, and everyone has something to offer.” Currently, Farrow is pretty busy pulling it all together. He’s securing permits in NYC so that he can park the truck around the city and is hiking the paper trail to 501(c)(3) status for
Home Free Organization, his nonprofit initiative. He’s setting up a social media site connecting homeless people directly with volunteers and fine-tuning the technology schematics of the truck design. He’s working with J.R. Ward ’00, who plans to set up a Home Free truck in Atlanta, and is hoping to expand to other big cities. And Farrow is also trying to coordinate a partnership with the Salvation Army in order to broaden his nonprofit’s reach and scope as well as tap into their network of resources. “There are no limits to what Home Free might become,” Farrow notes. “This is a mobile ‘pay it forward’ and everyone can contribute to the solution.”
_MARK BERRY photo by _mike ledford
Learn more about Justin Farrow and Home Free Organization at homefreeorg.blogspot.com.
a SemantiC adjuStment
Words matter. And Justin Farrow ’02 understands that. As part of his crusade to help those on the streets, he entered a new word and concept into the lexicon of the popular website www.urbandictionary.com. Here’s his contribution to our evolving language: home-Free Home-Free is the condition and social category of people who lack housing, because they cannot afford, or are otherwise unable to maintain, regular, safe, and adequate shelter. The term “home-free” includes the people whose primary daytime residence is in an institution that provides a residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or in a public or private place not designed for use as a regular sleeping condition for human beings.
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