“In February of 2021, when a subfreezing winter storm threatened the state, I knew what I needed to do.”

Callynth Finney tells how her teen and early adult years with unstable housing, food insecurity and an eye for beauty and resourcefulness led her to help create Tyler Street Team, a local organization made to help people in Tyler experiencing homelessness. Callynth's story was originally aired as part of Out of the Loop, season 5.

From an early age, I have had a knack for finding beauty in what others toss out. 

I also have a creative and people-oriented bent that helps me connect with others. Creativity is really just problem solving. And I, Callynth Finney, have had ample opportunities to become a problem solver.

I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. For the most part, that was the world I knew and where I began my first creative ventures.   

In second grade, I would call up random phone numbers and ask for a fake name as a conversation starter. 

“Is Bob home?”

 “Bob doesn’t live here; you have the wrong number.”

 “Oh, okay, but what’s your name?”

After a while, I had some regulars. “It’s Cally again,” I could hear them say after they picked up.

📷 all photos by Chris French for The Tyler Loop

I had a rocky relationship with my parents. By the age of 12, I began running away. I would hide at friends’ houses and eventually I fled to a shelter for runaway teens. I landed in a group home for troubled youth. 

At age 16, after returning home from the girl’s home, I continued to fight against the life my parents prescribed for me. My mom asked me to leave and not return. I had nowhere to go. I ended up on the streets of inner city Minneapolis.

My creativity — or problem solving ability — was put to the test in a new way. My eyes began seeing things differently. I looked for anything that could be a resource. 

Whether fresh cardboard to form a barrier to sleep behind or something to trade with another person, people on the street are looking at trash as a potential tool. All sorts of items could have been helpful, and I found myself constantly on the lookout — especially for the discarded pizzas at Rocky Rococos, left in the box and sometimes still warm. 

In time, I got off the street — though not unscathed. During that brief time, it felt like I lived a million lives. By age 18, I had given birth to a baby girl and placed her for adoption. By age 21, I had gone through another pregnancy. 

I had an infant son and was living in low-income housing in an unfurnished apartment. My baby and I arrived there with three items: a coffee table with three legs, a folding chair and a twin bed. 

I began dumpster diving at the apartment complex. Over the next few months, I acquired a table top and cinder blocks to make a table we could use while sitting on the floor. I found artwork, boards to use for shelves,and frying pans to use both for cooking and ironing clothes. 

I was very poor and just a step away from living homeless again — yet this was one of the most joyful, vibrant times of my life. I had a newfound Christian faith and a church family who took me under their wing. They surrounded my son and me with the love of God, and I bloomed. I began work as a hairdresser and was able to fully support myself and my son.

My life became centered around following Jesus so much that I sold everything I had to become a missionary. I moved to Lindale, Texas, and joined YWAM, a Christian nonprofit.  I married a man who worked alongside me in YWAM. During that time, I began a small photography business on the side to help supplement our income as missionaries. 

After several years, we moved from Lindale to Tyler. I opened my photography studio in downtown Tyler in 2015. But I have never stopped my desire to unveil and affirm the value in people that is already there; to demonstrate the love of God. 

Despite all of my work as a photographer with my own studio, the opportunities to do what I love most have kept finding me. Just as I had developed eyes to see what others had thrown out, I have eyes to see people who seemed invisible to the world — or even to themselves.

When I was in their position, there were many times I wished someone had just stopped and asked if I was okay. I didn’t always know where to find housing or help, and I eventually figured it out. But human concern was what I craved.

There was the time the cook at the 24-hour coffee shop offered to take me back to his house. I had to consider whether or not I was willing to pay the price. To my surprise, he made up a bed for me and said “goodnight” and left me alone. Or the time when six bags of groceries were left on my apartment doorstep by an anonymous donor.

So in mid February of 2021, when a subfreezing winter storm threatened the state, I knew what I needed to do. 

In the past, I have posted community needs through Facebook and had a sprinkle of responses.This time was different.

I reminded people about freezing weather and asked folks to contribute to getting homeless people off the streets and into a hotel. Miracles happened. Over that week, 177 people were housed at Super 8 and some other hotels in town. 

That was a sleepless week for me. Of the many memories I made over those days, I would like to tell you about two.

There was one boy who was very angry and threatening, yelling and screaming at people. On his assessment form, he wanted someone to pray with him. He shared he had been homeless since he was 6 years old. Never a real home, never a stable family.

I ended up holding him and I said, “I wish I could shrink you down to a little boy and put you on my lap and tell you how much I love you and how special you are. I wish I could be the mom you deserve.” He wept and wept and held onto me so tightly. I still see him under the bridge a few times a week, and he runs up to me and calls me “Mom.”

In another moment, I asked people at the hotel if they would be willing to share a room. One man said no. Later, he found me to explain why. “I have night terrors and I become violent in my sleep. I can’t sleep with people nearby, because I’m afraid I”ll hurt them. This is why I sleep in the woods.”

Every time we talked, he would come to tears. He told me about how a family member was murdered and his house burned down. For him, going into a program was not an option, because there are people around who he might harm. 

As people checked out of the hotel, they handed me gift after gift from the very little they had. I received a necklace, a blanket, piece of glass art, a piece of candy, a pair of shoes and a plate of grilled meat — grilled for me in secret behind the hotel room.

Because of the winter storm, a few people did not have to go back on the streets. They were placed in nursing homes, permanent housing with new jobs and recovery programs. 

And a new nonprofit, Tyler Street Team, has emerged to go to the unsheltered on location and connect them to local resources, like medical care, housing, food, counseling and employment. The hope is that as we reach out, volunteers and homeless residents alike have opportunities to build trusting relationships. 

I want to see more Tylerites taking the risk, stepping out in compassion. Love is risky.

There’s nothing better than being both known and loved.

That’s the Tyler I want to be part of.

Callynth Finney is from Minneapolis, Minnesota and has lived in East Texas since 2000. She has owned and operated Callynth Photography Studio in downtown Tyler since 2015. Callynth helped found the nonprofit Tyler Street Team. The organization brings aid to people experiencing homelessness on location.

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