COMMUNITY FIRST AUSTIN’S NEW HOUSING DEVELOPMENT KEEPS IT WEIRD – AND COZY – FOR THE HOMELESS
Community First! was just a seed, a thought that sprouted and took root in Alan Graham’s mind during a hunting trip. The Mobile Loaves & Fishes president and co-founder has spent his share of time on Texas deer leases, wiling away the hours in recreational vehicles, living close to the land and enjoying it.
Why couldn’t RV living be a way of life? Not long after that seminal thought, Mobile Loaves & Fishes put the idea to the test. The group, which had previously been dedicated to just delivering meals to Austin’s homeless, now wanted to provide a home to the homeless. In 2005, they purchased a gently used RV and “lifted a guy up off the streets and into that RV.”
That was the beginning of Community First!, a 27 acre master-planned community of small houses and RVs, complete with a community garden, an outdoor movie theater and a bed and breakfast.
“I love this city more than any place on the planet and we want all of our citizens to feel like Community First! is a place to call home,” Graham said.
Ideally, Community First! will create a sense of home and belonging for about 200 who need a chance; the people forgotten or swept aside, the chronically homeless who are handicapped or battle addiction, mental illness or both.
“We’re dealing with the people no one wants to deal with,” Graham said. “The brothers and sisters people love to hate.”
More than half way to its funding goal of $6 million, the project expects its first residents to move in early 2015.
But, this won’t be a handout for residents. They have to work for it – pay rent and abide by community rules. “This is all about choice,” he said. “They choose to live here.”
Stoking the fire of volunteerism and communal efforts to help the most vulnerable is not without problems and detractors, most notably what Graham refers to as NIMBY, the “not in my back yard” mentality. A mindset he’s found to be just as daunting as municipal zoning laws. While NIMBY is great for keeping high-traffic businesses out of quiet residential neighborhoods, it can also negatively impact an area and push out the people who need the most help or who are most at risk of living on the street.
Relying on persistence, Graham found a solution – locate Community First! eight miles to the east of downtown Austin, east of TX 183 near Hog Eye Road and Decker Lane.
Building Community First! away from downtown Austin, Graham believes will help ease some of the tension between Austin’s homeless and the local businesses by lowering the concentration of street dwellers in downtown.
At its core, the project is designed to impact all of Austin. Graham estimates that the city spends as much as $45,000 a year per person providing medical care and other services to homeless individuals. He believes the privately funded Community First! will lower the tax burden of Austinites by offering medical and social services to an under served population.
“It’s going to move people from a situation where they are sucking off of the system to being contributing members of the community,” Graham said.
He hopes the ideas born in Community First! can spread elsewhere.
Graham firmly believes that the communities of the world—large and small—should be judged by the way they treat their most vulnerable and weakest members.
“What we’re building is a movement … we’re on the edge of creating a movement. We want Austinites to say, ‘the movement started here.’ Austin will become an icon on how this is done.”
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