At a Lee Dog Story, we are committed to creating quality, self-managed communities of cost-effective tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness, while engaging the public with stories of life on the streets and recovery through the power of art, film and storytelling.
At A Lee Dog Story, our goal is to eliminate homelessness in the city of Memphis and take our model to other cities to create a network of affordable, sustainable Tiny Home Developments. Along the way, we will actualize a new paradigm on homelessness by creating unique art and film that changes the hearts and minds of communities everywhere.
Beloved community means believing in justice and equal opportunity while always committing to show love to fellow human beings. Each of our Tiny Home Developments will be anchored by the establishment of a beloved community, made up of the residents and the surrounding neighborhood.
Personal and communal dignity are at the very foundation of human rights, and are inextricably linked to the principles of equality and non-discrimination. At A Lee Dog Story, we are committed to promoting the dignity of every individual and every community we engage with.
Affordable, Sustainable Housing
We are committed to establishing affordable, sustainable housing to ensure that the neighborhoods we work in are revitalized, not gentrified.
Storytelling through Art
It is our belief that art has the tremendous power to change the hearts and minds of individuals and communities everywhere. We will seek to tell the story of those experiencing homelessness and their path to recovery through art and film.
Lee Thomas Brown, the gentle giant who warmed Midtown’s heart and won over its people, has left our city with one incredible, inspiring story to tell.
A Lee Dog Story was inspired by Lee Brown, a Memphis native who passed away July 14, 2018. Lee Thomas Brown, aka ‘Lee Dog’, lived on the streets of Memphis for almost 20 years, but in his last 15 years he was able to get off the streets and into stable, affordable housing with the help of the Memphis community.
At A Lee Dog Story, we believe that Lee’s story can serve as an inspiration to those currently experiencing homelessness, while also giving a blueprint to community members who want to end homelessness permanently. At A Lee Dog story, we are committed to learning as much as we can from Lee’s story and other individuals currently experiencing homelessness. Once we know their stories, we can work together in solidarity to end the plague of homelessness in our communities.
Tiny Home Developments
At A Lee Dog Story, we believe that Tiny Home Developments are the solution to Memphis’ affordable housing and homelessness crisis.
Although the rate of homelessness in Memphis has gone down by 40% in the last five years, there are still over 1,200 individuals and families without permanent, stable housing on any given night in our city and tens of thousands of additional families that are severely cost burdened and at risk of facing homelessness.
Tiny homes are the cheapest, most sustainable, and most ecologically friendly solution to creating permanent, affordable housing in various neighborhoods in Memphis.
Memphis Art Prints
At A Lee Dog Story, we believe that art is incredibly powerful and helps to connect and celebrate community, showcase values, and embrace the humanity of all people. In order to change the current paradigm on homelessness in Memphis and around the country, we will come together as a community to learn more about the humanity of those experiencing homelessness through a variety of artistic mediums.
A Lee Dog Story is collaborating with different artists from around the world to create a series of art prints inspired by our nonprofit organization, A Lee Dog Story.
Exclusive, original and affordable art prints by nationally recognized artists will be released on our website, with 100% proceeds going to our 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit organization, A Lee Dog Story.
Through the form of a TV docuseries and with the help of a National Media Network, we aim to help raise national awareness of some of the causes and effects surrounding homelessness, helping create a new paradigm on poverty and homelessness.
By connecting with our audience, we hope our TV Series will push viewers to think more openly, and challenge themselves to see the world from a different viewpoint. We believe that by bringing the world together to share these stories of homelessness and a community uniting, it will help make us more tolerant of difference and of one another.
Our Founder & CEO
Zach Waters is the founder and CEO of A Lee Dog Story. Zach was born and raised in Memphis, TN and he has been an active community member of the Memphis and Denver, CO communities since 2008. Zach has always been passionate about filming a Docuseries about people, men, women, children, and others, experiencing homelessness, so that they can tell their stories of living life on the streets in their own words.
In 2005, Zach enrolled in Memphis College of Art to pursue a degree in film and animation. His first course was in film production, so Zach immediately hit the streets of Memphis with a small digital camera. While interviewing members of the homeless community, he quickly became intrigued by the stories he found because of the incredible perseverance, character, and intensity of each person he interviewed. In the first few weeks of filming these stories, Zach found countless people that had been left to face homelessness alone and soon realized he would need a lot more resources to ensure his project had a real impact on their lives. Among the many stories Zach heard, Lee Brown’s was absolutely the most powerful.
In 2008, Zach helped start a film production company in Memphis that is currently thriving in Los Angeles. Although he is no longer a part of the company, the inception of Prodigy Arts was the beginning of his business and professional film education. Today, he commutes between Colorado and Memphis, while helping his girlfriend Avalon Yarnes to run an online cake school, in which he does all of the video production and editing. www.avaloncakesschool.com.
In July 2018, Lee Brown passed away in Memphis, TN at the age of 47.
“When Lee passed away it hit me harder than a ton of bricks and reignited the fire in me to tell his story. Through his friend’s and family’s memories, I believe we can learn a lot from his complex journey. From being homeless for over 20 years, to finding a stable job and housing with the support of the Memphis community, his story has so many lessons to teach us. Lee was a profound and insightful man with a heart larger than the state of Tennessee and a soul deeper than the Mississippi River. He has left us with one incredible story to tell. ” – Zach Waters
Zach founded A Lee Dog Story the same month Lee passed away, and by August 2018, A Lee Dog Story had become a Federally Tax Exempt US 501(c)(3) organization.
Inspired by the need to tell Lee’s story and the stories of others experiencing homelessness, Zach returned to Memphis to film more stories in the winter of 2018. While interviewing more members of the homeless community, he realized that a TV Docuseries was not enough to alleviate the scourge of homelessness in Memphis. While he knew the Docuseries would bring awareness to the issue, it would not implement a better, more innovative solution to ensuring these people never experienced homelessness again.
That’s when Zach discovered Square One Villages in Seattle, one of the most successful tiny home communities in the country. Square One has been active in the community for over 20 years and has successfully rehoused hundreds of formerly homeless individuals and families through the creation of Tiny Home Developments (THDs). After spending several months researching Tiny Home Developments, Zach realized that THDs were the most innovative, cost effective, and impactful way to get people back on the path to permanent, affordable housing.
Zach is an extremely creative, energetic, charismatic person with a strong desire to empower people and communities through the power of film and story.
Lee Brown was the epitome of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and the everyday embodiment of a giant Grizzly (teddy) bear. He was huge, about 300 pounds, with big, burrowing eyebrows, a rusty beard and lips the size of two average human thumbs. From far away, and a lot of times close up, he was an intimidating presence, like he could grab you and crush you with one squeeze. But Lee was not just larger than life in body, he was larger than life in heart. He had a heart that could reach across Memphis, to any part of the city or to any soul that was lucky enough to cross paths with him.
When I first met Lee, I was 16. I was on the way home to our house near Snowden Middle School when I saw a man sitting alone on a bench by a tree next to Catholic High School. It was a cold day, so I walked up to him and asked him if he wanted some food I had just purchased from Midtown Market on Cooper. That tree and bench became synonymous with Lee, a place where everyone in Midtown would see him for what felt like decades.
Now Lee, being the giant teddy bear he was, accepted this bag of food offering, but as he looked inside, I felt like he was potentially holding back his disgust of what I had offered. I remember there being donuts — powdered sugar of course — orange cupcakes, chips and some form of candy. I didn’t get his negative reaction, I mean, I was hooking him up with free food! I felt bad for the guy, even if it was his choice to live on the streets, because like I said it was cold. Like so cold that Lee’s nose had snot. Not a small amount like, ‘Hey you have a monkey in the window’ kind of snot hanging out of your nose, but more of a Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber stream of snot frozen down the side of your face kind of situation.
He looked down into the bag, wrinkled his bushy eyebrows and enthusiastically said: “huhhhh.” As soon as I became convinced that he didn’t want the food I’d given him, he saw a pack of smokes and he quickly reached past the mountain of sugar and pulled them out. With his eyebrows now curled upwards in a “that’s odd’’ manor, he more enthusiastically said, in his patented giant-like, deepened voice: “Thanks for the smokes, kid.”
Much to my bewilderment, I had just purchased two packs from Midtown Market on Cooper and apparently handed one of the packs over to Lee. I was trying to be nice, but not that nice! I mean that pack was worth ten times the weight of gold to the average 16-year-old. It was a buy-one-get-one-free special. I had just gotten my first ride, an old Toyota Celica. I’d forgotten that one of the packs was in the car, and one was still in the bag, the one I had just handed over to Lee. Now, I don’t know if you have ever seen “The Sandlot” movie before, but that’s the kind of mistake I felt I had just made, like this ball is absolutely not retrievable.
So, I did what any 16-year-old who had just driven to the opposite end of Midtown to illegally purchase cigarettes would do, and asked him for the cigarettes back, but nicely of course. “Uh, so, haahha, umm, actually, funny thing, I actually didn’t mean to give you those cigarettes, super sorry, I was just rushing and didn’t realize they were in there.” He looked crushed. Then he quickly smiled, and almost laughing, said, “It’s OK kid. I figured it was a mistake. Nobody gives you a full pack of smokes.”
That’s the moment I knew I had met a gentle, giant teddy bear. He could have responded to my request to return my smokes in any way, but instead of anger or vitriol, he responded with kindness. Luckily for me, I quickly realized in the moment that I was being an absolute ass. I immediately told him to keep them and that I hoped it made his night better. Lee was grateful that I had changed my mind and we ended up sitting there chatting for at least an hour. The entire time neither of us smoked a single cigarette, we just sat and talked. Well mostly Lee talked and I listened (if you know me, you know that can be a rare occurrence).
I was curious about why Lee was on the street and thought that maybe he would appreciate someone to talk to, even more than the bag of sugar I had just given him. And oh, did he. He talked and talked, while I listened. As our conversation progressed, I began to realize he had a rich, deep, kind soul. Despite his size and appearance, it was easy to tell he was the type of man who couldn’t even hurt even a cockroach (and in Memphis we all have our fair share of cockroaches.) “Lee Dog” had such clarity when he talked, like a wise soul who had been on the earth for ages. He would help you sort through life’s problems, as if he had none himself. His kindness abounded even more than his wisdom. Lee was the type of man who cared more for the average stranger than himself. He would have given me the only blanket he had that cold night, if he thought I needed it. From that moment on we became friends, never knowing that one day he would appear in not one, not two, but all three of my college Indie short films. From the moment I met him, I knew he was a one of one, a unique, vibrant personality that was an immense asset to the City of Memphis.
While we talked, it seemed as if he knew he had made some mistakes that caused his current situation of living on the streets, but that he was in no way trying to change anything. But luckily for Lee and for our friendship, something changed in the years after our first conversation — he was surrounded by a community of Memphians that did whatever they could to support him. Lee transformed his life and went from living on the streets to working again and living in an apartment in Midtown. Lee didn’t do this alone though, A lot of Lee’s transformation was thanks to people like Joe Birch of Channel 5, and Neil of Neil’s Bar and Grill. These influential people from Memphis truly became a part of his life, so much so that he talked about them like they were his personal saviors. They took Lee in and helped him find a steady job and permanent, affordable housing. Without community support from people like Joe and Neil, Lee could have easily been another lost homeless soul on Memphis’ streets. Instead, Lee lived the last 20 years of his life with community, dignity, respect and peace, and became an even bigger part of the incredible Memphis community. He was caring, thoughtful, generous, kind, smart, resourceful, brave, strong and REEEEEAAAALLLLYY funny!
At one of Lee’s favorite spots, Neil’s Bar, formerly located at the corner of McLean and Madison, Lee loved to throw intimidating looks at you during a game of pool to try and distract you during your shot. If you ever came close to beating him, which I only did a few times, his eyes would widen and stare deep into your soul like he was questioning everything about you. As soon as you missed, his giant smile would crack through the surface and he’d tease you about being so easy to throw off. It was at Neil’s where I got to know Lee the best. He would help Neil out with odd jobs, but mostly just did security around the premises in exchange for a bite to eat. Neil was never worried about him coming inside, even on Lee’s most challenging days. Eventually, Lee became such an integral part of Neils, he was inside all the time. He would sit right at the end of the bar and eat a hot plate, or go shoot pool with one of the unlucky passersby. I was mostly a walking bartender in those days, so I had the pleasure of laughing with him about random passersby and watching his pool power plays, everyday for practically six years.
While working at Neil’s, I was also attending Memphis College of Art for film and animation. Lee was fascinated with this, especially the film aspect, and he would tell me his ideas for movies all the time. He would constantly remind me of how well he could sing, how deep his voice could go, and of course how creepy his face could look. “If you ever need an extra in one of your movies, I’m your man,” he’d say. I started thinking of plots that could include him or even focus on him as one of the star characters. Eventually, I got a few ideas together and approached him one day while he was sitting in the front of Neil’s by the grill. He loved all of them.
The first idea was a story called ‘The Apple’ in which a confused teen — me — tours through the city in a lucid dream. Lee’s role was to be in a few scenes as the curious character sitting on the curb by Circle K, on the ground behind Catholic, on Auburndale and in the small park, Williamson on Poplar. Despite never acting or taking a class in his life, he had a very photographic nature and his acting was so natural. He could trigger these deep expressions like no other, and bring the largest presence ever to the screen without saying a thing. By this time, he was known around Midtown as Lee Dog to most and he was becoming not just a friend of mine, but a brother.
We filmed “The Apple”, a 2 ½ minute short, and then quickly decided on the next one, the story of Memphis, told from a resident’s perspective. At this point I knew that Lee’s story was the one I wanted to tell. He had a rich voice, a great sense of humor, a witty personality and deep thoughts, and he had great stories to tell. Unfortunately, once I started filming my first documentary, I realized the time and resources required for the project would be too much to take on in a short film, so instead, I ended up only making a trailer for the concept. In the recordings I have, Lee is the most cinematic and charismatic person around. I loved filming that short and was so proud of the end result. I really wish I’d had the time to finish the entire film, but it was the time in the semester for me to creative my third film, a B-horror movie.
As I’ve noted before, Lee’s size and personality can be intimidating, but I’ll give you an idea of how much our group of friends loved Lee. To start the film, I handed Lee a 12-inch butcher knife and a “I Know What You Did Last Summer” fisherman’s coat. All 12 of the crew members/cast went down into a basement with him to shoot the film, “Adam’s Basement”. The entire process was so much fun. We were all having the time of our lives, and I was having the time of my life making my first real short film, all because of Lee Dog. We will never forget it. It might not have impressed Stephen King, but it sure as hell impressed us. He was such a joy to have on set. He would come up with ideas, crack jokes, and every once in a while try to freak someone out. But, no matter how hard he tried no one in the crew even flinched because all knew of his kind giant’s heart could never harm a soul.
When I left Memphis to finish film school in Denver, Lee was one of the people I never wanted to leave. I knew he had health problems, which meant I might not ever have the pleasure of hanging with him again if I moved. We kept in touch for a while, but eventually, as with most long-distance friendships, it faded. But, my love for Lee never decreased or disappeared. We would talk occasionally on the phone and it was just always so good to know he was still doing well, and thriving alongside people like Joe and Neil. When we talked, he would let me know how he showed someone our movie and would talk fondly about his security job, his apartment and singing for the church. He told me that he recorded a song and couldn’t wait for me to hear it. Well, I finally did (thanks to Joe Birch for posting it). The man sings like an angel.
The past couple of years have been flying by so fast for me I didn’t even realize he was on Facebook. I just kept going and going with my girlfriend and our new business start-up, and didn’t make a trip to Memphis for over two years. Last December, I made it back home and the universe brought us together one last time. I was in Memphis for the holidays. Not only did I run into him, but it was at the good ole Bar-B-Q Shop. Lee absolutely loved their BBQ! It was my last night in town and I was just about to leave the shop. I was literally at the door when I decided I had to buy some of their sauce and dry rub to take back to Colorado.
I turned around and saw him walking toward the door. I ran toward him and he looked kind of confused, but then immediately snapped out of his food coma and realized it was me. “Zach!!! Zach!!” he said, “Zach, I can’t believe it!” We grabbed ahold of each other so tight. We talked for a couple of minutes, then I introduced him to my girlfriend, and he of course talked to my mom and dad for a minute. He gave me his telephone number and told me about his new apartment in Binghamton and how I had to see it. I told him I was literally leaving the next day to fly back to Colorado, but that I would call him the next day to come see his place and hang out for a while, and then we said our goodbyes. It was the best goodbye you could ever hope to give a friend, all smiles, hugs and love.
The next morning I woke up and couldn’t find the tiny sheet of paper he had written his number on anywhere. I literally spent an hour or more that day looking for it and while we were driving around Midtown taking care of a few things before leaving for the airport, I kept an eye out for him at all his old haunts. I lost my phone on a hiking trail a few years back in Colorado and never got my contact list back again — his being one of the most important ones I lost. That night at the Bar-B-Q Shop I told him I never thought I would see him again and that I was so happy I did, and that nothing made me happier than knowing he was OK. He said the same.
Lee didn’t have the longest life ever — hell 47 is a long damn time, but still too early to leave this world. Too early to take such a friendly soul away from Memphis and way too early for me to realize at 34 that I will never see Lee Dog again. Lee was the gentle giant who warmed Midtown’s heart and won over its people. Even in his death, he has sparked a fire in my life once again. I miss Lee so much and I will continue to do so until I leave and join him.
Well Lee, you have infinitely affected us all and for the absolute better, my friend.
This is your story, Lee, and with it you will never be forgotten. Much love, Big Lee Dog, and I’ll spot the quarters for a game of pool when I get there.