“You can only cross the street so many times.”
Dr. David and Linda Brown’s efforts to befriend homeless neighbors leads to Humanitarian honors
Yes, the first three homes at Eden Village are technically “tiny,” but they actually feel bigger than one might expect from less than 400 square feet of living space with a living area/kitchen, separate bedroom and bathroom.
At first glance, they seem like metaphors for the project as a whole — 30 tiny homes, designed to take the chronically disabled homeless off the streets or out of tent camps, feel small against the seemingly intractable challenges of homelessness in Springfield. Instead, they stand for something bigger: A new way of doing things; a shared sense of participation; and no less than a calling for Dr. David and Linda Brown and the many supporters they’ve gathered along their journey.
Seven years ago, the couple — an orthopedic surgeon and a Realtor — lived comfortably in Brentwood South near the edge of where Springfield meets suburbia. Linda Brown, through her real estate work, became intrigued by central Springfield’s loft development and in 2010, they sold their Brentwood house and moved downtown. They quickly discovered a part of the fabric in Springfield and other center cities — the homeless men and women who hang out or move around with their bedding, clothing and possessions compacted for travel by foot. After facing their own initial stereotypes about the homeless, they grew interested in knowing these downtown neighbors.
Seven years later, on Wednesday, they were honored as the Ozarks region’s 2017 Humanitarian Award winners for what has grown into two major projects. They were selected for establishing The Gathering Tree drop-in center, which has been housed in several downtown locations over the years, and for Eden Village, a new “tiny homes” concept that dovetails with Springfield’s adoption of the Housing First model to ensure residents have the security of permanent housing to better tackle the myriad other issues that led to their homelessness.
“It overwhelms you at first,” David Brown says. “And you say, ‘I can’t fix all of it, but I can do this much.’”
He is “mostly” retired and Linda still works some at Carol Jones Realtors. They didn’t have a solid vision for their retirement plans, but neither did they expect to find themselves doing what they are doing. Both people of deep faith, Linda says they followed the signs that occurred in their lives showing them this is what they’re meant to do:
- Their house in Brentwood sold basically before they listed it, allowing them to pursue their downtown loft opportunity.
- Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, helped the Browns locate an ideal place for The Gathering Tree’s current location after starting with a couple of earlier sites downtown where Linda acknowledges the center wasn’t a good fit.
- They met Nate Schlueter, a Springfieldian living in Austin, Texas, who was involved with a project similar to Eden Village and led the Browns to the company that builds and ships the fully finished and outfitted tiny homes. (Nate now lives here and manages Eden Village).
- The perfect parcel of land, where Eden Village would represent a significant site improvement and not face the NIMBY syndrome, happened to be available after the City of Springfield cleared out a decrepit trailer park on East Division Street.
- David’s late arrival at a dinner event found him seated next to Central Bank’s Russ Marquart, who then helped them with their financing for Eden Village. (Central Bank has since adopted one of the first tiny homes.)
- They found inspiration in another couple, Paul and Cyndy Teas, who started Camp Barnabas in Purdy for kids with special needs, on a similar wing and prayer and sense of passion. (The Teas happen to be the 1999 Humanitarians, one of now three couples to be awarded together.)
- And, they are grateful for the fact that they both enjoy good health, a critical component of why they believe they are called to do this at this stage in their lives.
“I’ve always had a passion and a vision for these people. Many years ago I used to say, ‘let’s go downtown, buy a building, we’ll live above it and make a free store,’” Linda says. “I’ve always thought about it, but never dreamed, ever, that we’d be doing this.”
Their fortunes of timing; their need to rely on others to accomplish their goals; their forging of bonds with their homeless friends’ hard realities of life, and death — these have been humbling experiences for the Browns.
As a surgeon, David Brown says he’s used to being in control. He is in charge, quite literally, when he opens people up. As an analogy to one of their favorite books “Same Kind of Different as Me,” Brown knows better than most that whatever differences we exhibit on the outside, we are the same on the inside.
“I knew how to fix things,” he says. “If I started something, I knew what the end product would look like and I knew how to get there. This has taught me that I can’t do this—I’m not doing this. It’s taught me to rely on God to figure out what’s going to happen and I’m just a conduit that he’s using. It’s really deepened my faith and understanding of who’s in control.”
Louise Knauer is the Chief Operating Officer at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.