Briana Daniel looks like a kid. Really, in the opinion of some, she is a kid.
At 24, Briana has already dedicated over 2 years to her homeless friends. When I first met Briana she was standing in my shared office chatting with my colleague, Hillery. I mistook her for a student, or a makeup artist, or something that might reflect her bubbly-ness, her youth, and her style. I introduced myself, then got back in my work groove in the way that could be considered rude but seemed necessary for the productivity of the day. A few moments later, Briana mentioned something about her homeless friends. I was curious.
"What do you do?"
"I run Street Team Movement. We do laundry. And a few other things [laughs]." Briana ends a lot of her sentences with laughter. She gave me a brief description of her organization and let me know that she would be at Thornton Park Laundry on Tuesday night.
The next time I saw Briana she was casually leaning against a washing machine, earbud cord dangling down her neck, jotting something down in a notebook. She looked up at me and smiled. "Hi!"
I pulled out my recording device and notebook. I was naive enough to believe she would have time to talk to me right away. After greeting me she immediately turned to a male volunteer to delegate tasks.
"There is another wave coming." Briana looked back at me. "Sorry, what did you say?"
Her size might play in to our misconceptions about ability, but Briana is a full blown boss. She runs the show every Tuesday night and Thursday morning at Thornton Park Laundry, and everyone who knows her knows it.
"Tell me about the service you're providing here."
"Uhm, tonight we're here doing laundry. We do it twice a week. Tuesday nights and Thursday morni- Sorry, what? Next week? I'll do it right now..."
I could see Briana was vital to the going-ons of the night. Volunteers and laundry guests needed her attention more than I did.
"Sorry about that. There is a lot going on [laughs]. So, we do it twice a week and it is appointment based. People can call in, text in, whatever they want. Once that appointment is set they show up at the time and there is a 15 minute grace period. We do accept walk-ins on a case by case basis. Not all of them [laughs]."
"How long have you been doing this?" Her baby-face was fooling me.
"Two and a half years. Well, 2 years for the laundry portion. It started when I was at UCF. I was laying in bed-"
"You put us down for 8." A woman holding a bag of clothing looked at me impatiently. I was in the way.
"Oh, you want to be 7:30? That's fine, I'll move you. So, yeah, that's what happened. I had just moved into my apartment and I was lying in my bed in the middle of the night. I was freaking tired [laughs]. A lot of people say 'Oh, I hear God talk to me.' You know? But, no, I really heard the audible voice of God shake my windows. 'WAKE UP!' Literally, just two words. It was like there was something missing. There was something I was sleeping through in life. I started looking around and just seeing things. I always loved walking and running around Lake Eola because oh, man, Lake Eola is just so nice. I was jogging and I started looking around and noticing all of the people that were carrying bags. I stopped and realized everyone was homeless. Not everyone, but you know. I was buying a drawing from a friend of ours named Roosevelt Hall. This is back when he would go sell drawings and they didn't penalize for it, now you get kicked out of the park for selling your own art. I guess it was simpler times back then [laughs]. I was talking to him and I asked 'Are those people over there homeless?' And he was like, 'Yeah, and them, and them, and them.'
Briana mimed pointing to imaginary people all around the room. Her expressions and hand gestures were so animated that I almost cracked a smile despite the serious subject matter.
"I was shocked. I was taken aback. This is it, this is what I was asleep to. " She paused a moment, reliving her experience.
"Alright God, what do you want me to do?"
Briana looked up at the ceiling then brought her gaze back to meet my eyes.
"I saw the problem but I didn't know the solution. Maybe I didn't know the problem, really. Maybe the problem wasn't homelessness because I knew I couldn't give people a house. I wanted to discover the actual need I could meet because I knew there was a blanket of needs, I just didn't know which one I was specifically supposed to meet."
"So, I left. I left my house and I went homeless for a month. I went two weeks at a time so I could see for myself. And I discovered: it's hygiene. I was finishing my degree and on a premedical track and I was really health focused at the time and everything I did always related back to health. If you look at the programs we have now, it all leads back to the most fundamental levels of health. I mean, if your clothes are dirty on a clean body, that is not healthy. If your socks are filthy, you are filthy. You can get a disease. People need to shower. It's just unsanitary and unhealthy not to. Especially for me, a woman."
I hadn't thought about the obstacles a woman might face on the streets. When the lights go out, there are no locks to secure, there are no walls between you and everyone else.
"You don't think about what a woman has to go through on the street or on her period. You don't think about being a homosexual male, either. It's tough in the shelter and you get harassed."
Briana's outreach extends beyond laundry. Most recently, Street Team Movement has announced a mobile shower suite to provide showers on a full-time basis. Briana turned her attention to address a volunteer. "Did you want to get some pizzas? [laughs]"
Wait. Phones? Did I hear that correctly? I drew her attention back to the interview. "You said people will call or text to get their appointment?" I was ignorant.
Homeless people have phones?
"[Laughs] You're like, 'who has a phone?' I'd say about 80 or 90 percent of our friends have cell phones. Like, 10 percent have phones way nicer than you and me. It's a misconception, and it's something I didn't know about until I was able to see it first hand. It's pretty cool, there is what they call the 'Obama Phone.' Its like a small cricket type of cell phone that the government supplies if you need assistance. They give you X amount of minutes a month and when you run out you can still text people and call 911. I think we are in a day and age where pretty much everyone understands that you need a form of contact."
Briana kept using the word "friends." It felt deliberate. I wanted to know if she considered everyone there her friend, or if this word choice was about connotation.
"I think it's both. I mean, you could use the term 'individual.' I just feel like there is no amount of times that you could say the word 'people' and still feel like they are people, you know? I don't want it to be an us and them situation. It's about maintaining a level of closeness that word 'people' negates."
If you do not have a permanent address, you are considered homeless in the state of Florida. If you live in a hotel, if you live in a shelter, or your car, or a friend's couch, you are considered homeless. "Homeless" conjures imagery of a person living under a bridge or sleeping in a doorway, but it isn't the reality for most of Briana's homeless friends.
"Domestic violence is the most common reason."
Briana gave me a knowing glance that seemed to suggest we all know someone walking this line. "It's not all about druggies and alcoholics, that is probably like, 15% of it. Everyone is circumstantial."
I was listening to other conversations and they were indistinguishable from the conversations I have every day. This could be me. This could be you. This could be your aunt, your cousin, your childhood best friend. Briana let me know that most of her friends have college degrees and families. One of her favorite things to do is sit with her friends and listen to the stories they tell. I could see why.
"Maybe you have a car but you can't afford to get that down payment for a house, maybe you're so close but there is this stupid glass ceiling. It's not like you would want to be here. People tell me it's circumstances. They look at me and ask me not to judge them. And I don't. I get it. We are all that one bad breakup or one paycheck or whatever away from this. All of us. Well, most of us."
Briana's focus shifted. "Thank you Vertrand, you're a rockstar. We have food."
The pizzas had arrived.
I was uncomfortably aware of my ignorance. If you live paycheck to paycheck, one accident, one emergency, one break up could put you in a situation where you don't have the means to access clean clothing or shelter. Subsequently, any job prospects on the horizon would be overshadowed by these issues. You can't wow the boss at an interview in dirty clothes. You can't command respect while carrying all of your worldly possessions on your back. Your problems would snowball. There are so many factors that are vital to your success in this system.
Briana's vision extends beyond helping people clean their clothing. "I think lockers to put your stuff in."
"Maybe you have it together on this one day but you have 50 bags you have to carry to your interview. People will look at you and know the situation."
She took a moment to think it over. "Maybe how Universal does it where the first few hours are free [laughs]. Hey Jim and Pam, how are you guys doing?"
Briana knew everyone's name. I mean everyone. "I try to remember last names too. For safety. What if I need to fill out a police report?"
I felt a wave of panic. Briana is small. Is she in danger here?
"Some people lose it. They show up drunk and it can be a bad situation. It used to happen quite a bit. These are everyday people that react to things the way you would react. If you go all day and no one bothers to make eye contact with you, no one acknowledges you, it's not ok."
Briana doesn't just know everyone's name, she knows their relationships to each other.
"If this person doesn't get along with someone, I'll space their appointments out so they don't see each other."
One thing she kept stressing was acknowledgement.
"A misconception is that it’s ok to not make eye contact with them. I can’t tell you what that does. It’s like you go all day and you’re in a room but no body sees you, you are in a place and no body acknowledges you."
Briana believes that eye contact is a big part of "the 5 human truths."
"It's ok to smile and say hi to someone. It's just feeling like you belong and you're part of society."
The topic seemed to evoke a visceral response. Her eyes met mine.
"If you feel like you are outside of society you might begin to act like it." She paused for a moment. "I don't know if I want that on the record. You know what? Put it on the record [laughs]."
During our conversation there were multiple interruptions. Most notably, a man by the name of Mark who happened to be doing his laundry was inspired by her cause and handed her his extra change.
"I love when this happens. It doesn't matter how big or small. We have a lady who power walks and hands us a roll of quarters when she comes by. I don't know her but I love her so much."
Briana doesn't make everyone happy. "That guy over there doesn't like me at all." She motioned to a man standing with his hands on his hips to the right of the laundromat. He looked annoyed. "He says he doesn't like when people walk by and talk to his customers. I went over to talk to him to let him know we would keep an eye out for it and he was like 'oh, you're the girl who does the laundry, oh my God, I hate you.' I was like, what?! [Laughs]."
Besides an ornery business owner, Briana has dealt with ample negativity.
"I have been yelled at, cussed out, spit on, had things thrown at me, and been jumped on. You name it and it has probably happened. And it is horrible. I remember people thought I was a UCF student doing this for a project. They didn't realize that I don't care if it annoys them, I'm still going to be here [laughs]. You can't chink away at someone's armor overnight. I will get cussed out and still say 'have a good night and be safe.' and that's it."
So why does she keep coming back? How has she lasted nearly 3 years?
"Jesus went out and met people right where they were at...that's what it takes sometimes."
Street Team Movement has been successful thanks to donations, but two years ago the entire operation ran out of Briana's pocket.
"It was worth it. Every single dime, I wouldn't take it back."
Despite the time commitment, Briana also has a day job, but she hopes to be able to make Street Team Movement her sole focus. "I want to have at least 5 laundry locations and 5 mobile showers driving around Central Florida 7 days a week, 8 hours a day. I want people to have lockers, hair cuts, resume building, everything. Things need to be mobile because people live out in Apopka, the woods, Kissimmee, and there are not a lot of shelters out there. You have to meet people where they are."
For Briana, everything comes back to her faith. "The whole foundation of this organization is faith based and Christ inspired. Jesus met the people where they were at, he got his hands dirty."
Near the end of the night, Briana was sitting on top of her car with her knees to her chest. She was just as animated as she had been at the start. I asked her if there was anything she wanted to say as a final note.
"I am completely humbled to have started this. I am humbled God trusted someone completely unqualified in the world of business...So, I just want to say thank you to everyone for being patient with us about all of the emails that have been sent and not replied to, and all of the calls that I have not returned yet, and missed meetings and so many other things. I am trying to work both with my heart and my head to meet the needs of those we are serving as well as handling the business background of it. Thank you to everyone. Thank you for your patience. After 2 and a half years, I have gotten better at it. I only have 14 missed calls a day now [laughs]."
Briana Daniel looks like a kid, but she represents cosmic ideas.
To learn about or donate to Street Team Movement click here: www.StreetMovement.org
To donate much needed items please email Info@StreetMovement.org to arrange donation pick ups.
(Most common needs: Work boots, backpacks, razors, blankets, feminine hygiene products, chap stick, sunscreen, etc.)