What if the answer to homelessness is not as simple as creating more housing? This was a question Community First! Village founder Alan Graham struggled with when first working with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an Austin nonprofit organization. It was relatively easy to “lift up” an individual off the streets and put a roof over their head. But giving them the support needed to combat a fall back into homelessness was another story.
According to Graham, the primary cause of chronic homelessness is the total loss of family and support. After concluding that offering a roof over someone’s head is not enough, the team at Mobile Loaves & Fishes decided to take matters into their own hands and create a community where the homeless and housed population of Austin could come together to eradicate homelessness and the stereotypes that precede it. From this unified effort, Community First! Village was born.
More Than a House, a New Way of Life
Graham wants to make clear that Community! First Village is not a homeless camp. On its website, the village is described as “a 27-acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.” When you see this community, you can’t help but wish you lived there yourself.
When an individual moves into the village, they are given the choice of three housing options: RV, canvas-sided cottage or micro home. These structures become much more than a place to sleep at night. They offer security, stability and a sense of pride for residents.
Residents are required to pay a certain amount of rent, depending on the type of home they select. The community strives to create opportunities for residents to make money from the comfort of their home base. The grounds boast a fully-functioning blacksmiths forge and art studio, both of which offer classes from local trades people. Soon the community will have a market where residents will be able to sell their wares and earn income.
Tiny Homes, Big Changes
Community First! Village currently houses 40 residents, but soon there will be homes for 250 individuals. Once the foundation for a micro home or cottage is laid, it takes 4-6 hours to build, maybe even less. Although the initial construction is speedy, the amount of compassion that goes into making these houses into homes has come from years of practice. Thomas Atchison, Communications Coordinator, pointed out that each home is furnished and decorated with new and quality items that welcome residents into a comfortable way of life.
There is nothing sterile or generic about these incredible quarters. I was amazed at how spacious the micro homes and canvas cottages feel. They are each equipped with a mini fridge, place for storage, beautiful bed and other touches to make anyone feel at home.
Perhaps the most important aspect of each home is its address. The homes sit on roads with names that inspire joy, like Goodness Lane. For someone who has been chronically homeless, the stability of a number to call their own is a luxury many of us take for granted.
The village has a number of communal kitchens, which are nicer than ones you find in most homes, as well as an incredible organic garden which anyone can use. “It’s better than Whole Foods!” Atchinson laughed. He continued to explain that when you are homeless, you are forced to eat whatever is available. Often that means processed food off a dollar menu. At Community First!, residents are nourished, body and soul.
It Takes a Village
When you walk up the front path of the village, you are greeted by a row of retro Air Stream trailers, teepees and a smattering of micro homes. These spaces are set aside for Texans who want to experience a “staycation,” serving in their own backyard. Next to this area sits an amphitheater–a veritable outdoor Alamo Drafthouse–where summer movie screenings take place. Both of these ventures exist to bring the greater Austin community in.
We live in a very philanthropic city. The problem, according to Atchinson, is people feel they have to fly to a country in Africa to make a difference. The fact of the matter is that by working in our own backyard–down Hog Eye Road at Community First! Village–we can have as big of an impact, if not bigger than we could flying across the world to volunteer. At the village, there is something for everyone to do. Volunteering doesn’t have to feel like work when you live in a city like Austin.
The staff members hope that by staying at their bed and breakfast, coming to a movie screening, or taking a gardening class, community members will feel welcomed and inspired to return.
Fewer Walls, More Porches
I ended my tour by standing on a micro home porch that looked over the community. Nowadays in cities, security walls are getting higher and porches are getting smaller. Some of us don’t even know our neighbors. At Community First! Village, though the homes have different shapes and sizes, they all have a front door that opens onto a spacious porch.
These small but significant touches effortlessly create community. Graham wants residents to feel that although they are empowered by the ownership of their own space, they aren’t alone because they are surrounded by neighbors and friends wherever they look. After being homeless, it takes a while to regain trust. But with time, empowerment and community, trust can take root.
Get Involved With Community First! Village
Every once in awhile, we need to celebrate what we have with a little exploration. Community First! Village is an amusement park of goodness. Walking the grounds give you hope for the world. It may even inspire you to come back again and again, so you can call this little village on the edge of Austin a part of your own community.
If you would like to volunteer, take a class or stay at the Community First! Village please check out their website.
The next Community First Movie Night is on May 20, 2016 with a screening of “High Noon.” The event is free, but proceeds from concessions will benefit residents of the village. Bookmark the event calendar for future events.
9301 Hog Eye Road
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