The text below is quoted from “Austin’s Fix for Homelessness: Tiny Houses, and Lots of Neighbors: Texan Good Samaritans built a village for those in need–no public funding necessary,” by Megan Kimble,* Reason Magazine, November 12, 2018.
*Megan Kimble is a senior editor at Austin Monthly and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.
Richard Devore loves “the fact that I’m supposed to be here,” says Devore, who was homeless for the 13 years before he moved in. “I can relax and belong here.”
Devore lives at Community First! Village, a 27-acre master planned community just outside Austin, Texas, where more than 200 people who were once chronically homeless live in tiny homes and RVs. Everyone who lives at Community First! pays rent, ranging from $225 to $430 per month; many residents are employed on-site.
“Before I moved here, I honestly didn’t think my life would have anything other than being a homeless drug addict,” Devore says. . . [O]ld habits were hard to break. “I hung out with the same people. I didn’t know any of my neighbors. I was living the same life, just with shelter,” he says. “Eventually I decided I wanted to get high more than I wanted to pay rent. If nothing changes in someone’s life, when the money runs out, they’re going right back to where they were.”
This is the idea that fuels Community First! Village. “They have a saying upstairs,” Devore says. ‘Housing will never cure homelessness, but community will’ . . . While there are several tiny-home villages built for the formerly homeless across the United States, Austin’s Community First! Village is distinct in its communal focus.
It’s also the largest such community—and it’s about to double in size. In October, Community First! broke ground on a 24-acre expansion, which will add 110 RV sites and 200 micro-homes, alongside a permanent 20,000-square-foot health facility. That would bring the village’s total population to 480 people—roughly 40 percent of the estimated 1,200 chronically homeless people living in Austin, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition—and make it considerably larger than any other tiny-home community for the homeless.
Community First! Village is the brainchild of founder Alan Graham, a real estate developer who started feeding people out of a pickup truck with four friends from Austin’s St. John Neumann Catholic Church two decades ago. They called it Mobile Loaves & Fishes and stocked the truck with fresh food and clean clothes. In 2003, Graham started spending nights out on the streets, deepening the relationships he’d formed through the food truck. “We started asking: What is it that you desire?” he says. “Community was what emerged.”
For seven years, Graham searched for a plot of land in Austin to build his vision of an RV park for the chronically homeless. . . In 2008, Austin’s City Council voted unanimously to grant Community First! a long-term ground lease on 17 acres of city-owned land. But neighborhood resistance was intense: After a community meeting “exploded into Armageddon,” Graham says, he gave up on building within the city, and, in 2014, purchased 27 acres just outside city limits in Travis County. One year later, he started moving people into RVs and tiny homes.
Located in a sparsely populated area about 10 miles northeast of downtown Austin, the village today bustles with activity. There’s an outdoor movie theater, donated by Alamo Drafthouse and the site of Friday evening screenings, free and open to the public. Beyond the 200 full-time residents, the little town hosts volunteers from church groups, visitors touring the development or attending art classes, and AirBnb guests staying in an assortment of stylishly designed tiny homes and an Airstream trailer that are all listed as vacation rentals—part of the village’s mission to bring more people into regular contact and conversation with the homeless.
While the village is operated by a faith-based nonprofit and has a distinctly Christian vibe—45 people live on-site as missionaries—residents of all faiths are welcome, including none. . .
Maintenance of these shared spaces is one source of employment for residents, who can earn anywhere from $350 to $900 a month to clean the kitchens and bathrooms and contribute to general upkeep around the village. Some residents make jewelry or pottery in the art studio to sell in the Community Market; there’s also a woodworking studio and blacksmithing shop. Community First! Car Care employs half a dozen people who will change your oil or rotate your tires while you wait. Graham says that the community distributed nearly a million dollars of “dignified income” to residents in 2017 and 2018.
But many residents, Graham admits, aren’t capable of holding traditional nine-to-five jobs—“they’re going to have to be subsidized for life,” he says. “The question becomes where does that subsidy come from? Does it come from the federal government, or does that subsidy come from the community?” It’s a philosophical question as much as an economic one, but Graham believes that responsibility should fall to the community.
The number-one rule is that you have to pay rent, which covers roughly 40 percent of the village’s $5 million operating budget. Miss a payment, and you will be asked to leave. Graham says that doesn’t happen much—the retention rate at Community First! is 86 percent. When it does happen, substance abuse is usually to blame. “You can’t make drugs and alcohol your preference,” Graham says. “This isn’t the right place for you to be.” To Graham, that’s where the village’s focus on socialization and shared space comes in. “None of us can do anything around here without being caught,” he says. “There’s a level of human accountability to that.”
Among the village’s newer full-time residents is founder Graham and his wife: Last year, they sold their home in West Austin and moved into a 399-square-foot RV in the village. “Our hope is that not only do people come to a different understanding of how we can mitigate homelessness,” he says, “but how do we change our own lives from being so isolated and disconnected from each other?”