Through a growing master planned community, a religious nonprofit organization in East Austin is making an impact on chronic homelessness.
When Alan Graham refers to residents Community first! The Village as “Neighbours,” speaking to the community that this enclave of tiny homes, tiny cottages and RVs was soon set up to expand beyond the 51-acre parcel of land in East Austin.
Graham, a former real estate developer who launched a debt-based social media department Mobile Loaves & Fishes was established in 1998 to serve the Austin homeless community, which was designed for the neighborhood as a way to help people transition from chronic homelessness.
“I started developing very deep relationships with the men and women on the streets,” Graham says of his work. “In 2003, I started spending the night on the streets. I personally spent about 250 nights there.”
In that time, he learned about the work ethic of people who live on the streets, and refuted the stereotypes about laziness and homelessness that people harbor. He believes that the biggest cause of homelessness is a “huge and catastrophic loss to the family” – sometimes through suffering from unimaginable abuses, including forced drug use and sex trafficking while living with parents and other so-called caregivers.
“I have learned that the greatest entrepreneurs on the planet, albeit ineffective, are the beggars standing on street corners, deported to do the only thing we are allowed to do now, which is the First Amendment of free speech, which is the right to beg,” Graham says.
Approximately 350 people who were previously homeless reside in the village, which provides permanent housing and is outside Austin city limits (in Texas, MLF notes, there is no discretion to use land outside municipal boundaries, which means that the village has had no problems with zoning). As of March, the village’s retention rate for residents is around 88%. With a series of new investments, Community First plans to triple its footprint soon.
Graham started the village by helping create a homeless man with an RV to live in. Then he did the same with many other people. By 2012, he acquired 27 acres of land to build what would become the neighborhood’s initial phase. It has since grown into a community of about 350 housing units, mostly singles, although there are some couples among the previously homeless residents. About 50 people drawn to missionary work have also relocated, and they volunteer in the neighborhood they joined.
MLF Bills Society First! The Village as “the country’s only major development designed specifically for men and women emerging from chronic homelessness,” but Graham and his wife call it something else: the home.
They live in a modest home in the community first among their formerly homeless neighbors – a stark contrast to the Tony Westlake neighborhood where they lived for 34 years while Graham was in the real estate business. Graham declares that Community First is the best neighborhood he has ever lived in.
Launched primarily as a private venture, Graham lined up with angel investors to seed the vision and partner with businesses to create homes and provide materials for upkeep and upkeep.
A $36.6 million grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, announced last December, will solidify MLF’s plans to create an additional 1,400 homes for the homeless through a $150 million capital campaign, calling it an “important next step in achieving the broader 10-year .A plan to alleviate homelessness in Austin.”
The city of Austin is now stepping in with fee waivers totaling more than $4 million for the next planned phases of MLF’s community-building work, but as of today, the next phases will be largely driven by donations.
The community itself made $1.2 million last year through various small businesses the MLF set up in the village, employing a number of its residents in the process.
Community First has an art studio – including two pottery kilns and a jewelry-making station that leads to a collaboration with famous Austin jewelry magnate Kendra Scott – that generates revenue for MLF and provides artists in the community with a creative outlet.
The village also contains what is essentially a small home hotel set up near its entrance that serves as vacation rentals for people visiting Austin, with residents serving a range of roles to help run it. There is even an on-site auto shop where people can bring their cars in for repair or have the annual government checks required to register the car.
Residents are expected to pay their expenses, although rent and utilities are increased to enable homeless people to transition into life in Community First! Village – Once they pass the three-step process, they are accepted.
First, a prospective applicant undergoes a coordinated assessment with one of the many agencies serving the homeless in Austin with which the Multilateral Fund is involved, to determine that the applicant is chronically homeless and has lived in Travis County for at least one year.
First-community residents live an average of nine years on the streets before entering their homes, and by Graham’s estimate, 70-80% receive either federal disability, Social Security, or veterans’ benefits. Society does not first require the population to abstain from drug and alcohol use; Graham justifies that “the United States government, having spent trillions of dollars, cannot determine this deal.”
The second step involves the prospective applicant having a neighborhood tour to determine if they want to live there. Finally, if a person wants to apply, they fill out an application and join the waiting list. Each new home is furnished and decorated in the resident’s preferred color palette and tastes. Once a resident becomes a resident, that person can stay for as long as they can maintain rent and utilities payments and live civilly among their new neighbours.
A tiny home made, which will take the applicant about a year to get into, will cost the resident $440 a month; The tiny home, which only takes a few months to become available, costs about $380 with utilities. Each tiny house has a bed, fridge, and microwave but no kitchen or bathroom; These residents use shared outdoor kitchens, as well as individually closed bathrooms and showers, located in hubs near the maisonettes.
Graham advises those who live in small houses to think of them as just the bedrooms of a larger house that extends into those common areas. With a health clinic and small neighborhood food store, a new gathering space called The Living Room about to open, and a weekly farmers market where neighborhood-grown food is distributed to residents, MLF aims to be as complete as its residents can.
Through a partnership with the popular Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain in Austin, the village also boasts a franchise An outdoor amphitheater where residents and the general public can watch movies (with concessions run by villagers).
Some even made society first their eternal place. There is a columbarium on the site where 24 residents are buried after their death, and an additional columbarium will be added to the memorial site soon.
“We instill and restore the building blocks of livability,” says Thomas Aitchison, MLF’s Director of Communications, “so they are given the same access to the most basic and essential functions of life.”
Those building blocks include human relations, which are not only empowered by volunteers who come to the neighborhood to keep it working. Although the pandemic required a pause for volunteers who first come into the community, they are now back and giving the neighborhood extra vitality.
“We’ve created a destination for people to serve,” Graham says. “Before society first! Village, if you have a heart of service, if you have a heart for the homeless, your options are very limited. We’re offering a destination, so it’s here now, and people come to us, when they find out, it’s the proverbial snowball coming down the hill… We have to compare despair with hope.”
Phil West is a journalist based in Austin, Texas and lecturer in the writing program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.