North Texas Daily

Motorcyclists unite to house poor and homeless

Motorcyclists unite to house poor and homeless

Motorcyclists unite to house poor and homeless
April 10
00:21 2014

This is the first story in the Mayborn School of Journalism’s poverty series titled “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

Joshua Friemel // Contributing Writer

When he was growing up, Ben Carswell didn’t have a home. Alcohol and drug addiction robbed him of that privilege.

The motorcycle enthusiast bounced around the United States finding refuge in the dark woods of North Carolina, the orange groves of Florida, under a bridge in Houston and in the harsh Phoenix desert after leaving his parents’ North Carolina house at 16 years old.

He remembers a time in his early 20s when he sought sanctuary at a church. He sat in front of a preacher crying, pleading for any kind of help.

“I told him I needed off the streets,” Carswell said. “I need off the booze. I need off the drugs. I need help. He said, ‘I’m sorry young man. I have no way of helping you.’”

Carswell eventually cleaned up – he’s currently in a 20-year recovery stretch from alcohol and drugs – and found religion. He made his way to Denton to start a motorcycle ministry to take care of people in dire need of second chances. People like his 20-year-old self.

Since 2002, the man they call “Tank” – a nickname that either stems from the large size of his tank on his motorcycle or his belly; he’s not entirely sure himself – has been the national president of Sons of Thunder, a halfway house that takes care of the homeless. Aside from the Denton location, Sons of Thunder helps people on the streets of Lubbock and Whitesboro, Texas.

Initially, the Denton location was set up to house more than 100 victims of Hurricane Katrina. When the Louisianans made their way back to the bayou, Carswell decided to keep Sons of Thunder open to help Denton’s homeless, a population of more than 200.

Carswell said that some of the people he houses are turned away by local churches due to piercings or tattoos.

“A lot of people that’s poverty stricken get hurt by these church people really bad,” he said. “They preach one thing, but when it comes down to doing what they preach, they don’t do it. People see that.”

For that reason, Carswell feels that he’s called to clothe, feed and provide a home for the outcasts. His 19-year-old son, Benny Carswell Jr., even offers his own home up for people to stay. Two kids who had no future with both parents going in and out of prison graduated high school because of the Carswell family’s kindness.

Both Carswells say that ever since the city of Denton kicked them out of a 5,000 square foot building on Hickory Street in 2005, things have gone downhill. They’ve been reduced to housing an unspecified number of people in two mobile homes on the outskirts of Denton County.

In 2005, Carswell was housing about 20 homeless people at what is now the Mellow Mushroom near the Square until city officials found zoning and code violations in an inspection. The organization, much bigger than it is now, raised upwards of $38,000 to meet city qualifications, but was still kicked out because the city denied a certificate of occupancy allowing overnight lodging.

“People don’t like helping the homeless,” Carswell said.

At that time, Denton City Council member Bob Montgomery told the Denton Record-Chronicle that, “A shelter wouldn’t fit the image of a street dedicated to the arts.”

Enter Mellow Mushroom, exit the clan of outcasts. But closing the shelter was never an option.

“My dad said he’d rather go to prison than kick people out on the streets,” Carswell Jr. said.

Since they moved locations, financial backers and help from local churches have almost disappeared. Shady Shores Baptist Church and Singing Oaks Church are the last two supporting Sons of Thunder. Carswell’s remodeling business, which he’s had for 30-plus years, and the churches are the lone sources of income and donations for the organization.

Shady Shores member Bill Roberts and his wife Kellen have helped cook meals, clothe and donate money to Sons of Thunder for all eight years they’ve known Carswell. Roberts said “it’s my place and mission to help” and that there are only three reasons as to why he’d ever stop assisting his friend.

“The first is if they dissolve,” he said. “Two, is if I have to move out of state. And the only other reason is when I pass on.”

Most of the people that stay in Carswell’s shelter are recovering drug users, alcoholics or those with felonies on their records. Carswell takes a proactive approach making sure those who stay bring in at least three job applications to help them get on a track to supporting themselves. One man has stayed with Carswell for the last eight years while working at Walmart.

“Society is cruel on these people,” Carswell said. “I don’t think [kicking them out on the streets] is right the way they do them.”

Carswell Jr. said that he’d be ready to take over Sons of Thunder when his dad can’t run the nonprofit any longer because “there’s no reason it should stop with him.”

“I think that there is always going to be something like poverty around,” Carswell Jr. said. “It’s not going away anytime soon. We’re kind of shorthanded and in a little bit of a lower spot ourselves, but we’re always going to be there to help.”

Carswell said that his faith in his nondenominational religion hasn’t wavered with the lack of support from once-friendly churches. He is, however, irked about one aspect of the church.

“We asked one church for some help and the preacher said he’d only help the Salvation Army because they had a bigger name than the Sons of Thunder does,” Carswell said. “He said that they’d get more publicity helping the Salvation Army than with us. I told him that that didn’t sound like anything godly for a preacher to say that. It’s very discouraging to hear.”

Carswell said he’s also run into one preacher that was enthusiastic about giving donations to overseas projects, but refused to feed and clothe the hungry here in Denton due to possible complications with the law.

“I told him, ‘Well preacher, I guess I’ll split hell right open then because I’m going to go on helping these people,” Carswell said. “I’m going to go on helping these kids because that’s what the Bible says to do. Man’s law is one thing, but God’s law is a whole different thing.’”

Information on Sons of Thunder can be found at http://www.sonsofthunder.org/contact.html.

Featured Image: Ben Carswell and his wife stand proud in front of their Shady Shores double-wide mobile home. Carswell’s other double-wide mobile home provides shelter for almost 30 addicts, felons and social rejects. Photo by Byron Thompson, Intern Photographer.

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2 Comments

  1. Kid
    Kid August 19, 18:35

    The other day I was at Salvation Army to eat when I met a homeless mother with her son. The Salvation Army said they couldn’t help them because her son was still a child. So I gave them directions to Sons of Thunder where they can help. The temps were in the triple digits at this time.

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  2. Roadhogg
    Roadhogg March 04, 03:30

    The only thing they do is promise nothing.Ben is a so called pastor stood up gave us the rules and I, a recovering alcoholic the next day he where handing out beers on the front porch. He also lets people stay that pay even if that means they also do drugs one man was their name David and he did drugs never kicked out once and then let him stay because he made a monthly check that means that anybody comes in can’t fill a bed because of the people that are paying even though they should have been kicked out those are the rules very confusing place to stay and they also have bed bugs when I was there

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