Blog posted On November 28, 2018
The “housing first” model of addressing homelessness emphasizes the importance of stable housing before other issues like chronic unemployment and substance abuse are addressed. Real estate developer Alan Graham has taken the “housing first” approach a step further with the Community First! Village – a mix of RVs and micro-homes that shelters and employs formerly homeless people 10 miles northeast of downtown Austin, TX. Community First! Village has been so successful, that last month a 24-acre expansion began, which will include 110 RV sites, 200 more micro-homes, and a 20,000 square foot health facility.
The Ending Community Homeless Coalition estimates that by the time the expansion is complete, roughly 40% of Austin’s approximately 1,200 chronically homeless will be living in the Community First! Village. The concept emerged when founder, Alan Graham, was working with the St. John Neumann Catholic Church to feed the homeless population through the Mobil Loaves & Fishes initiative. Graham interviewed some of the homeless people he met to determine their greatest need and he found, “community was what emerged.”
After years of searching for the right location and lobbying with Austin’s City Council, Graham found that finding a location within the city of Austin was met with resistance. In 2014, he settled on buying 27 acres of land in Travis County outside of the city limits. The once sparsely populated land is now bustling with activity. About 200 full-time residents live in a mix of RVs and micro-homes. The village design encourages socialization, there are no backyards, only front porches. The homes themselves do not have running water or plumbing, so residents share bathroom and shower space, laundry facilities, and outdoor kitchens. Residents are required to pay rent to contribute to the village’s $5 million annual operating budget. If a resident misses a rent payment, they are asked to leave. The village currently has an 86% retention rate.
The community also presents employment opportunities maintaining the shared spaces, cleaning kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry facilities, and contributing to general community upkeep. Residents can earn anywhere from $350 to $900 a month. There is also a community market, farmer’s market, woodworking studio, and blacksmithing shop. Though the operation is a faith-based, residents are not required to participate in religious services. A free clinic, staffed and operated by Austin Recovery, provides treatment and recovery programs to those suffering from addiction. Currently, 50 full-time employees work on-site trained in mental health first aid.
Developments like Community First! work to transition the chronically homeless back into society. Dirk Early, professor of economics at Southwestern University explained, “in general, the people who are homeless for many, many years, if you really dig down to what’s going on in their world, there’s almost always some major mental health issues and/or addiction issues. The tricky part is: How do you stabilize their lives regardless of their housing situation?”