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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Permanent Fix for Homelessness Put to the Test Ahead of Thanksgiving

No longer homeless, the 90 residents of tiny homes just east of Austin’s city limits have a lot to be thankful for this year, as they prepare to celebrate their first Thanksgiving together.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — No longer homeless, the 90 residents of tiny homes just east of Austin’s city limits have a lot to be thankful for this year, as they prepare to celebrate their first Thanksgiving together.

This time last year, many of the residents of Community First Village were living on the streets, in their cars, or spending the night in shelters. Now, they each have a place of their own to call home.

People began moving into the 27-acre master-planned community in January. The village of tiny houses, canvas tents and RVs includes a medical clinic, 3 acres of organic farms, a dog park and an outdoor cinema.

The $14.5 million development is supported entirely by private funds.

tiny-house-austinIn a city where an estimated 2,200 people homeless on any given night and the numbers are increasing, where housing prices are skyrocketing, and housing providers are accused discrimination, Community First is a much-needed safe haven.

The village is the brainchild of Alan Graham, founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, an Austin-based nonprofit that sends trucks into the streets in five cities across the country to deliver food, clothing and other items to the homeless, 365 days a year.

In the past 12 years, as Mobile Loaves and Fishes housed more than 100 formerly homeless people in Austin RV parks, Graham dreamed of creating an “RV park on steroids,” where the disabled and chronically homeless could find affordable, permanent housing, and a support system, too.

“We believe that the single greatest cause to homelessness is a profound catastrophic loss of family,” Graham said.

When that happens, Graham said, it is the community’s responsibility to “take care of the most vulnerable.”

tiny-house-interior“We all have a yearning to live in community,” Graham said. “Most of us are isolated now in our single-family dwellings in these neighborhoods that have got nothing in it but houses. We’re not coming outside anymore. … We’ve been taught that’s the American Dream, but it’s not turning out as dreamy as we thought it would. There’s a lot of isolation.”

In addition to helping people feel less isolated, Graham said he wants the community to counter the stratification he sees in so many Austin’s neighborhoods, where the rich live with the rich and the poor with the poor.

When Community First Village reaches its capacity next year it will have a population of 250, Graham said. Residents today include formerly homeless nurses, architects, and the former CEO of a high tech now company.

At least 10 programs nationwide shelter homeless people in microhomes, although many of them provide shelter only on a temporary basis and to far fewer numbers than Community First serves.

What sets Community First apart, said Mobile Loaves and Fishes spokesman Thomas Aitchison, is its “relational model” through which its residents and hundreds of volunteers teach and learn from each other.

Warner Miller, 22, who had been living in his car for months before moving into a tiny house in the village three weeks ago, said he appreciates the myriad of opportunities to learn new skills.

Miller has become proficient at crafting metalwork in the forge; he is making dozens of bottle openers the community will help him sell. The village provides residents several similar microenterprise opportunities.

Miller said he was “skeptical” before he moved in, then “quite surprised” by how nice, friendly and relaxed the community turned out to be.

Many of Community First’s neighbors were also skeptical, telling county officials they feared it would hurt their property values and attract crime.

tiny-house-farmCommunity First does accept people with criminal records, except in some cases involving serious crimes against others. But Graham says that so far, apart from a couple of shouting matches, residents have been model citizens. Only two residents have been forced to leave, due to substance abuse issues.

“One of our goals is to break down the stereotypes that people have of homeless individuals … that they’re criminals,” Aitchison said. “In reality, they’re actually among the most vulnerable citizens. They get robbed a lot; they live in very unsafe environments.”

Ann Howard, executive director of the Austin-based Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said it is “statistically unfounded” to believe that a person with a criminal history will be a bad tenant, but that it is “almost impossible” for a person with a criminal record to find a place to rent.

Howard said she appreciates that Mobile Loaves and Fishes helps folks who cannot find housing because they have barriers such as poor rental histories, poverty or serious medical issues.

“The wraparound support systems out there make it an ideal place for somebody who has got a complicated life,” Howard said.

Graham said people from throughout the country have visited Community First to learn how to create similar programs, but that Mobile Loaves and Fishes is focusing on sustaining the community in Austin. It has purchased an adjacent 24-acre tract where he hopes to house another 250 people.

“The catch-and-release, fix-and-repair models don’t work. This is all about bringing people in, allowing them to plant roots,” Graham said. “Our hope is that they will stay here forever.”

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