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Village Offers Housing, Community, and Microenterprise Opportunities for Austin’s Chronically Homeless

Photograph of three micro houses. Micro houses and other unconventional housing types at Community First! Village provide stable, permanent housing for persons experiencing chronic homelessness in Austin, Texas. Credit: Mobile Loaves & Fishes

Community First! Village is a 27-acre community 7 miles from downtown Austin, Texas, that will soon provide 240 housing units for persons experiencing chronic homelessness as well as volunteers and staff. Mobile Loaves & Fishes developed the project to provide permanent, supportive housing through a combination of unorthodox housing types: micro houses, canvas-sided cottages, and recreational vehicles (RVs). In addition to housing, microenterprise opportunities at Community First! Village enable residents to earn an income and learn entrepreneurial skills, and onsite behavioral and physical health services pave the road to recovery and stability. Community First! Village also engages the broader Austin community by fostering interaction and relationships among village residents, volunteers, and visitors through activities taking place in a market, art house, amphitheater, and other amenities.

Housing in the Village

As of February 2017, Community First! Village contained 140 units occupied by approximately 110 people. When fully completed in 2018, the village will contain 240 units for approximately 200 permanent residents and 50 individuals and families who commit to a mission of service that includes living onsite. The village, located in Travis County and not subject to zoning, will include 121 micro houses, 19 canvas-sided cottages, and 100 RVs. Community First! Village also includes the Community Inn, a bed and breakfast for volunteers, who pay to stay overnight. Canvas-sided cottages and micro houses, which have a floor area of between 144 and 200 square feet, have electric service and heating systems; but they are not connected to water or sewer systems, so residents must use common kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry facilities located throughout the village. Each of the micro houses is built from a winning design submitted through a competition, Tiny Victories, organized by the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The RVs have full kitchens and bathrooms, as well as other amenities, to better accommodate residents with greater needs.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes uses the Austin region’s Coordinated Assessment to select residents to live in Community First! Village. To be eligible, a person must be chronically homeless as defined in Austin’s Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Residents are required to pay rent, which ranges from $225 to $380 per month depending on unit type. Residents have direct access to an onsite medical clinic where the Community Care Collaborative provides physical health care two half-days per week and Austin Travis County Integral Care provides behavioral health care and case management five days per week.

A Vision for Community Takes Shape

Community First! Village evolved from Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ initial work delivering food, clothing, and other necessities by truck to Austin’s chronically homeless. That experience led the organization to begin purchasing RVs in 2005 to house some of the people they serve. Years of operating delivery trucks also affirmed the organization’s belief in a relational approach grounded in the Housing First model to address homelessness. Addressing homelessness is “all about relationship,” asserts Alan Graham, chief executive officer of Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Relationships that affirm human dignity forge community. For the best physical setting that encourages community, Graham drew inspiration from Kampground of America’s vacation RV communities, a mix of small living quarters informally arranged around community facilities where residents can interact.

Photograph of a man working at an anvil in the community forge, with two youth watching. At onsite facilities such as the blacksmithing forge, residents of Community First! Village can earn income and learn entrepreneurial skills through the Community Works program. Credit: Mobile Loaves & Fishes

The village’s many community amenities encourage residents, volunteers, and visitors to interact. For example, the village includes a community market and an outdoor eating area for shared meals and an amphitheater where the community stages events that are open to the public. These are places where people with diverse backgrounds and situations can “have conversations, laugh together, get to know each other,” according to Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Additional common areas include a labyrinth for meditation, and a memorial garden. Volunteers are also able to meet and work alongside residents in one of several facilities dedicated to the village’s microenterprises.

Microenterprise Opportunities Affirm Residents’ Dignity

Village residents can pursue income-generating activities, learn entrepreneurial skills, and participate in microenterprise through the Community Works program. The program helps residents become effective microentrepreneurs who can generate a reliable income through meaningful work experiences such as blacksmithing in the community forge, farming in the organic urban farm, and craft working in the community art house. Works produced in the community forge and art house are sold in the village’s market, which provides an income for the blacksmiths and artists, and produce from the urban farm is used to prepare residents’ meals. Residents also earn wages by working in concessions during events or cleaning common facilities. According to Graham, residents earn a dignified income through these activities that affirm residents’ talents while also putting them on a path to stability and healing. In another opportunity to develop a sense of self-worth, residents lead volunteer orientations of the village’s microenterprise facilities.

Expanding the Community

Mobile Loaves & Fishes developed the $17 million project almost entirely with private donations and the in-kind professional services of architects and builders. According to Aitchison, hundreds of volunteers serve each week, and as of February 2017, almost 14,000 people have donated monetarily to support the development of the village. Mobile Loaves & Fishes provides numerous ways in which people can give to the village, including providing new and gently used RVs. The project’s success can also be measured by the low turnover rate of residents. Since its opening in January 2016, only one person has left voluntarily and three have left because of rules violations. Even as it works to build the rest of the planned housing, Mobile Loaves & Fishes is working on a $20 million expansion on an adjacent property that would add 350 units, and the organization anticipates additional housing development in the future.

Source:

Interview with Alan Graham, chief executive officer of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 2 February 2017; Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, communications director of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 7 and 13 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Community First! Village.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Community Works.” Accessed 20 February 2017.

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Source:

Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, communications director of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 7 and 13 February 2017; Interview with Alan Graham, chief executive officer of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 2 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects. 2014. “Tiny Victories: The Competition.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “The Community Inn.” Accessed 20 February 2017.

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Source:

Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, communications director of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 7 February 2017; Interview with Alan Graham, chief executive officer of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 2 February 2017.

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Source:

Interview with Alan Graham, 2 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, communications director of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 7 February 2017.

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Source:

Interview with Alan Graham, 2 February 2017; Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, 13 February 2017; Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. “Community Cinema.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “The Community Inn: What is Community First! Village?” Accessed 20 February 2017.

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Source:

Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Community Works.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Interview with Alan Graham, 2 February 2017; Alan Graham. 2009. “Panhandlers — America’s Great Yet Most Ineffective Entrepreneurs,” Mobile Loaves & Fishes Blog, 11 June. Accessed 2 March 2017; Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, 13 February 2017.

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Source:

Interview with Alan Graham, 2 February 2017; Correspondence from Thomas Aitchison, 13 and 7 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Ways to Give.” Accessed 20 February 2017; Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “In-Kind Donations.” Accessed 20 February 2017.

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