Sitting against a brick wall, Brian Heinz sips on hot chocolate while reading a book.
His clothes are tattered, and his hair is long, but his disheveled appearance doesn’t keep him from addressing everyone as “sir” and “ma’am.”
“I’ve been homeless off an on for about two years,” said the 23-year-old Waco, Texas, native. “I hitchhiked here from California to spend Christmas with my mom, but now I’m trying to get back to Texas.”
Heinz and many other homeless attended Hero School, a nonprofit organization that teaches homelessness awareness and prevention, Jan. 11 at the Las Vegas Library, 833 Las Vegas Blvd. North.
“There are two aspects of homelessness,” said founder Tiger Todd. “One is prevention. You break the habits or teach the awareness of these habits and where they lead to kids. Then, you have to break the cycle with the adults.”
Todd started the organization in 1995 when a group invited him to help feed the homeless at Ethel Pearson Park, 899 D St.
“There were 1,800-plus homeless people lined up to get food,” Todd said. “I had never seen so many homeless people. All I did was walk up and down the line talking with them.”
Todd said he observed the same four habits in each individual and assumed the habits influenced their homelessness.
“My first thought after walking a mile and a half talking to people was, ‘All right, I’m going to teach them the four opposite things,’ ” he said.
Todd declined to identify the four habits.
For years, Todd showed up to the park every Saturday and lectured the homeless on how to break their habits. By 1999, only 13 homeless individuals remained at the park, Todd said.
“Awareness defeats 80 percent of homelessness,” Todd said. “If a homeless person understands and is aware of those four things, he has an 80 percent change of changing. If he doesn’t, homelessness might triple.”
In 1998, Todd was asked to speak at schools about homelessness. He noticed that some students displayed the same habits as the homeless people in the park.
“From there, I started talking to organizations and schools,” Todd said. “I know what these habits produce because I’ve met 10,000 homeless people with the same habits. It’s a no-brainer. It’s not science; it’s self-evident.”
After helping schools and charities for years, Hero School started offering monthly academies to residents and homeless individuals last January. The programs are geared to break habits and cycles through a large academic experience, according to Todd.
“Every single person’s individual beliefs were learned in a group. I don’t care if they’re an engineer or a baptist,” Todd said. “The only way to alter these beliefs is to reteach them in a large group.”
The academy is divided into two sessions. Todd teaches awareness and his partner Kymm Buckner teaches prevention.
“I handle the large groups, (Buckner) handles the individuals,” Todd said. “I play a character in the academies to create conflict because there has to be character conflict for anyone to change.
“Then (Buckner) epitomizes a real person who doesn’t have the habits. Once I get them to look for it, she shows up as their Morpheus.”
According to Todd, the program has a 93 percent immediate success rate with most of the remaining individuals changing within a few years.
“We have such confidence that this is the human change formula,” Todd said. “In fact, I’ll tell you now that we have six failures that we know of that I take full responsibility for. They were the six people we did the most for. If you hold their hand throughout the whole process, they never grow their own muscles.”
Heinz said he attended the academy to learn how to become employable again and provide for himself.
“I want to earn my keep,” he said. “I want to get a job and go back to college. I don’t want handouts.
“I feel a lot older than I really am. The circumstances have shaped me and allowed me to see things differently. I really hope this is a new start.”
In addition to the academies, Hero School also helps provide job leads, suits for interviews and computer classes.
“My mission is not to control or track these individuals,” Todd said. “I want them to be free to live the lives they were meant for.”
For more information, visit heroschool.us or call 702-795-7000.
Contact Southwest/Spring Valley View reporter Caitlyn Belcher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0403.