At Community First Village, homeless people can find shelter, regain dignity, reconnect with family
As you approach Community First Village in East Austin from the west on Hog Eye Road, a giant sign appears at the entrance to the 27-acre community with big, bold letters that say: “Welcome.”
To a passerby, the words may be a nice gesture or a warm greeting for visitors. But to the nearly 100 people living in the state-of-the-art, master-planned community for formerly homeless people, the word means so much more.
Most of the residents had been chronically homeless, which means they had been without a home for at least a year. Most had been on the streets for much longer, some decades, often suffering from mental health issues and drug and substance addictions. Many had been abandoned by friends and family who thought they were lost causes.
“I was dying on the streets,” said Gary Floyd, a 54-year-old resident who spent 10 years homeless. “I believe Mobile Loaves & Fishes saved my life.”
The village has been more than 10 years in the making, the brainchild of Alan Graham, the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a group that provides homeless people food, clothing and shelter. Twelve years ago, it bought a gently used RV to help get one of the homeless men they often worked with off the streets.
“That sparked the idea of developing an RV park or what we call a KOA (campground) on steroids,” Graham said. “We’ve been working on it diligently ever since.”
The village, which officially opened in January but had a few residents before then, has a mix of RV homes and eccentrically-designed small homes (all less than 200 square feet) surrounded by amenities like gardens, a community amphitheater and places to work and worship or meditate. Once completed by the end of next year, it will house 250 people.
The community operates under a housing-first model, which espouses that homelessness is best addressed when providing shelter before addressing an individual’s other needs. Unlike many programs, the housing at the village is permanent, not temporary, which means residents do not have to worry about having to leave their new-found home and can focus on addressing their health or financial issues to set their life back on track.
With the village’s opening, Graham’s group has created much more than a campground or a place where homeless people can be set aside, away from the sight of Austin city dwellers who have become increasingly concerned about homelessness in their city. He’s created a familial community where formerly homeless people mingle with those who have never experienced homelessness and slowly gain back their dignity and ability to live normal lives.
“This is a safe place for me. It’s a godly place,” said Floyd. “This ain’t really a homeless community. This is a community of friends.”
Above all, community
There’s a saying at Mobile Loaves & Fishes: Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will. Graham and his partners channeled that mantra as they designed what he calls a “27-acre, 250-bedroom, $16 million mansion.”
Every part of the village was designed with the intention of creating community space. All of the streets on the property —which have names like “Peaceful Path,” “Goodness Way” and “Grace & Mercy Trail” — are connected in a loop, and every home has a front porch but not a backyard. If a resident wants to spend some time outside of their home, the idea goes, they’d inevitably run into a neighbor to spend time with.
“This place is built in a way that you couldn’t get away from community if you wanted to,” said Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile Loaves & Fishes.
Upon entering the village, visitors immediately see an outdoor amphitheater where Mobile Loaves & Fishes holds community cinema nights that are open to the public. On the far southwest corner of the community, there’s a dog park for residents to walk their pets. In the middle of the village, residents can spend time relaxing in the memorial gardens or working with animals in the chicken coop.
Members of the public spend a lot of their time in these areas volunteering or taking classes, like the blacksmith workshops in the village’s forge. The idea is both to provide formerly homeless people — who can attend for free; members of the public pays for the classes — with skills that can help them bring in a modest income and to have them interact with the general public, which helps bring down stereotypes about the homeless population.
The village has received a big boost in tackling those stereotypes by allowing missional families to reside in the community. Twelve RV units are inhabited by members of the general public — including families with children and single individuals — who moved to the village to help serve the formerly homeless population that lives there.
Among them are a nurse who works at the village’s clinic, the managers of the on-site community inn — where visitors can stay during service trips to the village — and a local business executive who wanted to help those in need.
“If we really want to profoundly change cultures and communities, we have to go live in these communities,” Graham said. “It’s not enough just to give someone a sandwich, you have to move into a relationship with people. You have to be willing to share email addresses and telephone numbers and invite people over to your house for the holidays.”
“When people of seemingly different backgrounds come together, our backgrounds turn out to be not so seemingly different,” Graham said. “It’s just placing value on the human person and it goes both ways.”
Suzanne McConkey, a retired accountant, has lived in an RV in the village for one year with her husband, Bob. When Graham first asked them to move into the village, she said, the couple had to pray on the decision. The next day, they went to church where the preacher gave a sermon on the importance of helping your neighbors.
“That answered prayer was pretty clear,” McConkey said.
McConkey and two other families from her church moved to the village, where all that is required of them, besides paying the rent, is to be good neighbors.
“‘Community First,’ I try to provide that,” said McConkey, referencing the name of the village. “But (often) I end up being on the receiving end.”
At the village, she said, the separation between those who have experienced homelessness and those who have not melts away.
“You walk down the street and you better not be in a hurry to get anywhere because someone is going to stop you to talk,” she said. “I’ve never lived any place like this. There’s a difference here.”
And individuals aren’t the only ones contributing to the community effort. Graham, a successful real estate professional, amassed a plethora of Central Texas businesses and local entities to help in his efforts.
The on-site clinic at the village, which provides mental and primary health care services, is operated by Austin-Travis County Integral Care and CommUnity Care; the community cinema is sponsored by the Alamo Drafthouse; and the maintenance building was paid for by McCoy’s Building Supply. The community market, where residents can make a quick food run and which sells items made by residents in the blacksmith forge, wood shop and art house, is a partnership with H-E-B.
Several luxury home builders have contributed to the village’s tiny home stock, which now has more than 100 units. A 17-year-old engineering student from California and an engineering team from Texas A&M donated the tiny homes they built as projects to the community.
“It’s completely amazing to me to see how (people have) responded under a new movement catalyzing right out of Austin, Texas,” Graham said.
For many people who are chronically homeless, their troubles begin with the catastrophic loss of family.
Floyd, who spent 10 years on the streets, said his downward spiral began after the death of his mother in 2006. The Baytown native had already lost his brother, sister and father when his mother went into critical condition after diabetes complications. Floyd had to make the harrowing choice to unplug her from the machines that were keeping her alive. Haunted by the decision, he said, he fell into alcoholism.
Floyd ended up homeless, lost contact with his daughter and landed in jail several times. Seven years ago, he moved to Austin, which he heard had many resources for homeless people. Last year, he was arrested again for shoplifting during a drinking binge. He ended up in a rehabilitation program and ultimately landed a spot in the Community First Village.
In keeping with its philosophy to provide housing and community, criminal records do not immediately disqualify an applicant, though each application is screened for violent crimes and are taken on a case-by-case basis. Applicants are recommended by social workers who have completed an assessment of their situations. Registered sex offenders cannot live at the village.
The only thing required of residents is that they pay their rent — which range from $225 to $380 with utilities included — and follow civilian law and community rules. Recently, the village elected a community council to make rules to improve the lives of its residents.
Since moving in, Floyd, who was elected to a position on the council, has stayed sober, held down a job as a maintenance contractor on-site and reconnected with his estranged daughter who thought he was dead.
“This place gave me all the hope I needed,” said Floyd, who plans to spend Christmas with his 32-year-old daughter in Dayton, near Houston. “This place is so exceptional in so many ways. I’ve got missionals offering to take me to Dayton or to handle my job while I go, so I don’t lose any income.”
Bonnie Durkee, a veteran amputee who was formerly homeless, also was reunited with an estranged child while at the village. NBC News featured her in a story about the village in April. Her son, who was living in Las Vegas, saw the story online and called the village office on Mother’s Day to connect with her. Durkee said she cried for an entire day before calling him back.
“I’m not the only one,” she said, “I know four or five people that were able to reconnect with their family.”
For those who don’t have family to connect with, their neighbors at the village fill the role. In November, about 140 people celebrated a Thanksgiving feast together in the village. In early December, the entire village was hard at work for their Christmas tree lighting, an event that pulled the community together to ensure the nearly 200,000-light display went off without a hitch.
“It’s all my family here,” Floyd said. “I’m protective of all of them and they’re protective of me.”
Nearly a year after its launch, the village is almost half full and two to three new people move in every week. But Mobile Loaves & Fishes recently bought a 24-acre lot next to the Community First property to expand and help more people out of homelessness.
“We’re trying to make it 51 acres closer to heaven,” Durkee said. “This place is as close as Austin gets to heaven.”