Hammering Away at Homelessness

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How Michael Kellerman and Austin Habitat for Humanity are building a community

Michael Kellerman maintains that there’s nothing like having a hammer in your hand–even if you have no idea how to use it–to transform an ordinary Saturday into a potentially life-altering experience.

Kellerman, vice president of communications and development with Austin Habitat for Humanity, has had an opportunity to see that theory in action over the past four years. In 2007, before even working for habitat, he helped launch the city’s first Pride Build. (Kellerman jokes that experience turned into a six-month job interview.) Among his other marketing and fundraising responsibilities at Habitat, Kellerman now helps steer Pride Build every year, bringing together Austin’s LGBT community to build a home for an Austin family in need. In that time he’s watched it become many things: the nation’s first ongoing annual habitat for humanity Pride Build, a way for people from the different spectrums of the city’s LGBT community to connect, and an inspiring humanitarian event.

“You come out on a Saturday morning, not knowing who you’ll be building with, and at the end of the day, you’ll have worked to build a tangible work of progress,” Kellerman said. “You’ll get to know the family you’re building for, their stories, their struggles. You may have gotten to know people in your own community you didn’t know. Giving up your whole Saturday to sweat in the sun doesn’t sound like that much fun. But I’ve seen it happen thousands of times now, that people’s perspective of the community changes, in just one day.”

Like so many Austin residents, Kellerman found his way to the city and his current job en route to another path entirely. A Connecticut native, he had been living in Manhattan when he decided to leave the drab Northeast for the West coast. He ran out of money in Austin, and 10 years later has no doubts that this is his home.

With a background in classical and jazz music, Kellerman started out working in the performing arts, first through UT and then with Zach Theatre. He was with Zach Theatre in 2007 when Bettie Naylor brought together a group to brainstorm a project that would help showcase the area’s LGBT community. And with that, Austin’s Pride Build was born.

“We assumed many other communities that had other prominent LGBT communities would have projects like this,” Kellerman said of Pride Build. “But we were only the second city ever to do this–surprisingly, Phoenix was the other one…it changed my perspective on a lot of things. Certainly on leadership, and on poverty.”

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian housing organization that asks volunteers to build houses in partnership with families in need, with a goal of eliminating poverty housing and homelessness. Kellerman said both the international organization and Austin’s habitat are diverse and welcoming to everybody.

Kellerman recalled that not long after starting at habitat, he discovered that while the organization has a client nondiscrimination policy, a similar policy for employees didn’t exist for the Austin location–although it does for Habitat for Humanity International. When he pointed out the discrepancy out to the leadership at Austin habitat, a unanimous vote to adopt an employee nondiscrimination policy followed.

“I feel very much that I’m in an organization that supports me and my rights,” Kellerman said. “It’s fantastic that an organization can stand up out and proud and support this community.”

Kellerman said he’s noticed that Austin’s LGBT population is fairly well-integrated into the greater Austin community–Austin doesn’t have a gay section of town, per se, even if there are a wide range of activities to choose from that plug into Austin’s LGBT world. That structure has its ups and downs, he mused. It can make it more difficult for new Austinites to launch into the LGBT community when they first arrive, but gay Austinites’ perception of themselves as part of the larger community also makes an idea like Pride Build work, year after year.

For Kellerman, who said he loves the wonky science and patterns of demography and geography, the challenges of keeping Pride Build thriving, as well as fundraising overall for habitat, are enjoyable. One of the most important aspects of his work, he said, is the fine art of bringing in volunteers and money. Austin’s habitat draws about 9,000 volunteers a year, a number that needs constant replenishment. And when it comes to an annual event like Pride Build, there’s the additional challenge of generating the same rush of enthusiasm and participation that came with the inaugural event each year.

With a quickly growing and evolving city at its doorstep, Austin habitat has plenty of energy to tap into. Kellerman said what he loves most about Austin is the fast-paced change and growth and the excitement that comes with it. The city is, he said, much like a teenager, growing in fits and starts and discovering its identity. But with the rush of adolescence, he points out, also comes some growing pains. And as Austin natives are famously scarce, the dearth of city dwellers here for generations means community involvement and philanthropy doesn’t have the depth it might in other cities.

“We love to celebrate ourselves, but we’re staring at a tremendous challenge in economic divide, between the haves and have-nots,” Kellerman said. “What can this city do to deepen its roots? Those that give and make changes in other cities have been in the city for generations, and love the city. So the more we can do as citizens to be curious about what’s not great, the better we can make Austin.”

Kellerman said one of his goals is to deepen his own roots in Austin, and he looks forward to raising a family in the city and one day looking back at his decades here. “That’s a new occurrence for me. I was a nomad, I wandered all over the country. I think it said something about this city. I’m a travel freak, and I travel as much as I can, but I’m always happy to get back to Austin.”

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