Superhero, 4, swoops into Detroit to feed the homeless
Detroit — A homeless woman grips the handles behind her walker and painstakingly limps forward.
A young boy offers her two sandwiches and a soft drink.
“Don’t forget to show love,” he says shyly, smiling at her and other homeless people waiting in line for food.
The child, dressed as a superhero, is just four years old.
Austin Perine visited the Mariners Inn shelter in Detroit on Wednesday as part of a multi-city tour away from his home in Birmingham Alabama, to foster his mission: feed as many homeless people as possible around the country, one sandwich at a time.
It’s his duty, as a superhero, he says, when asked why he wants to feed the homeless.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “They don’t have any food, and it makes me feel happy to do that for them.”
Austin's mantra is repeated each time he hands out sandwiches, soft drinks and water.
“Don’t forget to show love,” he says in a soft voice.
That expression, “#ShowLove,” is emblazoned on the blue T-shirt in red letters as part of Austin’s superhero uniform, along with a red cape and red over-the-knee socks. In fact, staff and some clients at Mariners Inn wore the T-shirts and had decorated the parking lot with red and blue balloons to surprise Austin when he arrived to feed the homeless.
Mariners interim CEO was among around 50 people gathered outside the shelter, applauding and cheering the young boy when he exited the car with his dad. They crowded around him taking pictures, shaking his hands and posing for photos with him.
“We’re honored to be selected as an agency for Austin to help,” Carina Jackson said. “For someone that young to be able to give back is amazing and sets an example for other young people.”
She added, “He is the youngest volunteer we’ve ever had.”
He's also pretty young to be campaigning for his ultimate goal: President of the United States of America. His dad took him to visit the White House
"Dad, you always tell me to think it, believe it and achieve it," Austin told his dad, T.J. Perine, 38, at the time. "Right now, I think the White House could be my house."
His father said, "He's holding me accountable for what I always tell him."
Back at the Mariners Inn parking lot, Lynette Webb, 53, was the woman walking behind the walker. She said she has a congenital hip disorder and one leg is shorter than the other.
She pushed her walker out of the sun to express her sentiments about Austin’s mission.
“I see a baby who’s helping and cares about other people,” she said. “I wish more parents would show their children what it means to care.”
Kenneth Armstrong, also homeless, stood in the parking lot, munching the sandwich given to him by Austin.
“I think it’s amazing that this is a little kid with the heart of a grown man,” said Armstrong, 57. “God showed him at an early age what it means to care for someone. I wish I had a son like that. That’s God’s work right there.”
Austin, who turns five on Christmas Eve, didn’t even know what the word homeless meant before last year.
“I was watching Animal Planet with my dad, and I saw a baby panda who had been left by its mother,” said Austin, who enjoys playing with Disney cars, and whose favorite meal is noodles. “I asked my dad why the mother was not taking care of the baby panda.”
Austin’s dad took over.
“I explained to him that that is just how pandas are, and that the baby panda would be homeless for a while, but that it would be OK because they are used to it,” the father said. Then Austin asked, ‘Dad, what is homeless?’ “
That exchange between father and son changed both of their lives.
The dad explained to Austin the meaning of homelessness and thought that was the end of the conversation.
But it was only the beginning.
“Over the next few days, while he was sitting in his booster seat in the back seat, I’d drive around and he’d see people leaving their cars to go shopping or running errands, and he’d ask me if those people were homeless,” Perine said.
“I told him no, and added that if he did his workouts and chores, I’d take him to see some homeless people.”
So Perine looked up homeless shelters online and discovered a shelter near downtown Birmingham.
But driving by and looking at them wasn't good enough for Austin.
"They looked sad," the boy said. "So I asked my dad if we could get them some food."
But the dad was reluctant, “because this is my four-year-old boy and I'm going to be exposing him to the streets. It took me a minute or two, but I finally said OK."
Feeding the homeless at a shelter morphed into feedings in St. Louis, Seattle, Dallas and Detroit. When they depart from Detroit, they head to Memphis, San Juan, Puerto Rico; New Orleans, Portland and Los Angeles.
Austin and his dad sat in the lobby of the Comfort Inn and Suites in Allen Park earlier Wednesday before they left to buy food to distribute to the homeless at Mariners Inn. Comfort Inn is among the sponsors helping Austin on his mission, along with Burger King, Church's Chicken and Southwest Airlines. He's also raised $83,000 so far on GoFundMe.
"Austin’s mission to #ShowLove is inspiring and aligns with the warm and welcoming service we provide," said Megan Brumagim, Head of Comfort Brands. "... We’re proud to support Austin’s impactful work and look forward to providing outstanding accommodations, and a freshly prepared waffle, at each stop on his superhero journey.”
While in Detroit, showing love worked both ways. Austin expressed it by giving. The homeless people who received that love, returned it with warm embraces, and expressions of gratitude, sometimes with tears in their eyes.
“I think it made them happy,” Austin said.
“Because they smiled and said, ‘Thank you, man.’”