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This story was co-published with El Paso Matters as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.
At 4 a.m. on a Wednesday, smoke from live oak fills four 2,500-pound smokers at Hallelujah! BBQ in the border city of El Paso, Texas.
Inside the smokers, hundreds of pounds of brisket, ribs, turkey and sausage seasoned with pitmaster Blake Barrow’s signature rub will be slow-cooked to the perfect temperature.
Inside the remodeled historic building, workers move around the open-concept dining room that looks like a classic Texas BBQ restaurant that has been around for decades. Wooden tables are laden with fresh tulips in old-timey apothecary bottles, mason jars filled with cold iced tea and crisp lemon wedges, and table tents with photos and stories of recovery from the workers serving guests.
The women and men overseeing this newly opened BBQ joint are all familiar with the transient lifestyle and drug addiction — they all are graduates of homelessness-related programs at the Rescue Mission of El Paso.
“What it’s all about is the people,” says Barrow. “This is simply a way to provide job training for people who are homeless at the rescue mission.”
Since 1952, the Rescue Mission of El Paso has been helping the city’s unhoused and transient community. Barrow, a former trial lawyer, became executive director in 1997 at the shelter that offers residential services, a drug and alcohol relapse prevention program, job search services, a facility that provides warm food, coffee, clothes, access to restrooms, showers and laundry machines and a vocational rehabilitation program.
Marcus Peoples, 25, serves a plate with BBQ made at the Hallelujah! BBQ. He is one of 13 employees at the restaurant that is recovering from homelessness and drug addiction. (Photo by Christian Betancourt)
Barrow gave up the courtrooms in 1997 to support the homeless community of El Paso as the nonprofit’s chief executive director.
“I was sitting in my law office, practicing law doing trial work, thinking I was happy with it, had plenty of work, and making a lot of money,” he says. “God called and said it’s time for you to do something productive.”
The mission’s first vocational program was a furniture store created in 1986 at their previous location until it was bought out by the Texas Department of Transportation in 2014 for $13.5 million.
“So they bought us out, tore down all the buildings, destroyed the factory, and paid us for it, of course,” Barrow says. “Then I had the decision to make: Do I want to recreate a furniture factory, which, although woodworking is very therapeutic, the factory was not profitable, or do we want to take this as the opportunity to go do something else entirely?”
And something else is what they did. Barrow used his passion for Central Texas-style BBQ and created a catering business in 2016. That was a testing ground for what eventually became his brick-and-mortar restaurant, which opened on April 5 as Hallelujah! BBQ.
“The bottom line is, I love barbecue, we love to eat and I know how to do it,” he says. “The Central Texas-style barbecue is the best in the world. It’s all about the rub. It’s the smoking process and getting the flavor of the beef to come out.”
Beyond that, Barrow uses his more than 40 years as a pitmaster to teach people a new trade, plus the rules and responsibilities of working in the service industry.
Candace Blanchard, a graduate of the El Paso County Behavior and Health Residential Treatment Center, has been involved with the Rescue Mission since 2019. She serves as the manager of the restaurant, where she oversees 11 employees.
“I worked my way here,” she says. “I actually was the one tearing off the roof when this place was in shambles. I did a lot of hard work. I learned how to drive a forklift, a bobcat and a backhoe. I’ve done a lot of the construction that I never did. I learned how to smoke and how to manage.”
Every aspect of the restaurant, including the heavy wood picnic-style benches, was done by Rescue Mission graduates who have been given a second chance at life.
“It’s amazing because, for a lot of us, we have backgrounds,” Blanchard says. “I had some charges that I didn’t think I would ever have a job, and definitely not one where I would be in charge. It’s been a blessing.”
Blanchard, a hands-on manager, continues to help those dealing with addiction while making a better life for herself.
“Three years ago, one of my friends was still in active addiction,” she says. “ I was taking her food, and she is now one of my employees. So leading by example is the best thing that I can do for them. It’s amazing to be able to provide for myself and my children now than having to rely on another person, like before.”
Painted shipping containers alert patrons about the restaurant that serves as a vocational rehabilitation program for members of the Rescue Mission of El Paso. (Photo by Christian Betancourt)
One of her employees is Marcus Peoples, who used to reside at the shelter after being released from prison, where he had been serving time for drug-related and assault felonies.
“Candice was [at the shelter] one day, and she was looking for servers,” he says. “So I talked to her. She told me a day to be here, and I came, drug-tested, got my shirts, did my paperwork, and started the same day.”
Peoples aimed to have a car and his own place within two months of being released – a tall order for anyone with a felony conviction on their record. “One of my main focuses was getting a job, and that was very hard,” he says. “Finding a job was hard because getting out of jail only having my ID and not having some security card or birth certificate. It’s a little more challenging.”
Before getting in trouble with the law, Peoples studied to be a dental assistant, a job he said he couldn’t pursue due to his conviction.
“I’ve been sober for a while now,” he says. “I want to go back to school for high-performance mechanics. We’ll see how that works out within the next few months. I’m going to give it a little bit of time. I don’t want to jump back into life headfirst.”
Already on probation, a failed drug test landed Nicole Hernandez in prison and separated from her child. After her release, she went to rehab and a shelter for women, where she learned about Hallelujah! BBQ.
“I was allowed to go get help,” she says. “People go there because they’re sentenced, and I learned from it. God willing, I don’t want to go back. When I was locked up, I lost a lot. I want to do better. I want a better life not only for myself but for my kids.”
Nicole Hernandez works as a server at the restaurant after being released from prison and experiencing homelessness. (Photo by Christian Betancourt)
Hernandez interviewed with Blanchard and was offered a job as a server. “It’s been a really good journey for me,” Hernandez says. “If you’re looking for help, if you’re looking to start something better than your past … this the place to do it.”
Once program participants learn about food handling and safety techniques, they are ready to seek other employment.
“They’ve got to learn all the safety rules is the most important thing and then just appropriate procedures for serving for greeting customers,” says Barrow. “If they’re in the cleanup area, then they’ve got to know how to work all of the equipment. The most important level is food safety. Then beyond food safety, it’s about how we make the individual dishes that we have and some basic cooking skills.”
The restaurant has been open for less than a month and has received many glowing reviews. But Barrow says some reviewers are simply prejudiced against the homeless or recovering addicts.
“There’s some guy in there that no doubt never even came into the restaurant but has this misconception that homeless people are all drug addicts,” he says. “He wrote a one-star review which gave me the opportunity to write a response to him and put him in his place.”
Christian Betancourt is Next City and El Paso Matters' joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives. He has been a local news reporter since 2012, having worked at the Temple Daily Telegram, Duncan Banner, Lovington Leader and Hobbs News-Sun. He's also worked as a freelance reporter, photographer, restaurant owner and chef. Born and raised in Juarez, El Paso became Betancourt’s home when he moved there in the seventh grade.
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