Chronic homelessness in America has become a national tragedy. We witness it almost daily on the nightly news, and if we live within a city regardless of its size, there’s a better than even chance that a number of us will come into contact with these displaced individuals. Some live within squalor in makeshift tents, or huddled within doorways. Many suffer from emotional trauma, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
If you live within a large metropolis like New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles, the likelihood of seeing homeless encampments in city parks, under highways and along urban streets becomes simply another fixture within the fabric of these cities.
However, since 2014, over 200 homeless individuals who once slept on heated gratings in the winter and under cool underpasses in the summer, now have homes of their own.
The pilot program began in Austin, Texas, by real estate developer, Alan Graham. He got the idea, along with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a Christian charity, to create a community dedicated exclusively for the homeless, after he spent some time feeding those displaced individuals through the Catholic-driven outreach project.
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The village called Community First, houses and accommodates formerly homeless people within a healthy and safe environment so that they may freely begin the healing process of having lived in squalor within the often mean streets of a city.
So far, Graham has built 200 tiny homes which are now fully occupied and hopes to build another 300 homes within the near future. Once complete, Community First will be able to accommodate almost 500 people, roughly 40% of Austin’s entire chronically homeless population.
In addition to hosting 100 RVs and 125 micro-houses, the village also includes community gardens, bee hives, work spaces, playgrounds, recreational areas, parks, kitchens, and a dozen other group facilities.
Residents pay a monthly maintenance fee between $200 to $430 dollars, and many earn their income working through jobs provided directly by Community First.
“A Faithful Presence is a relational ministry that comes alongside the good work that is already happening at Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. pic.twitter.com/IEXajqCT8u— Legacy Collective (@legacycollect) November 6, 2020
“We offer a number of micro-enterprise opportunities on this property that in the past two years has distributed over one million dollars to the neighbors that live in this community,” Graham told CNN.
Adding; “From the bed and breakfast, movie theater and car care business, to the pottery, jewelry making, blacksmithing and organic farming operation. All of this is being done by the men and women that are here.”
Graham continued; “We believe that housing will never solve homelessness, but communities will. Because within each of us, innately, are two fundamental human desires; to be fully and wholly loved and to be fully and wholly known. And just stuffing somebody into a shelter or a house with four walls and a roof is nowhere near sufficient. It’s all about the relationship here.”
The 51-acres were specifically designed to create a sense of community. The homes are built small on purpose, providing just enough comfort and privacy inside, while simultaneously encouraging its owners to go outside of their dwellings and enjoy their front porches. They can walk along the stone-paved walkways that lead to community kitchens, laundry and wash rooms, meeting halls, playgrounds, a dog park, a barber shop, an outdoor movie theater, a medical facility and a community market, all within walking distance.
Graham, along with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, hopes to launch a national movement directly addressing the homeless crisis by hosting every quarter a three-day symposium in Austin, Texas, instructing attendees how to create a similar model like Community First.
“These are our neighbors. It’s all about the community being inspired into a lifestyle, a service with this person,” Graham says. “And that starts by going into a relationship with them. So roll the window down, say hello. Go break bread with them at McDonald’s. It starts by seeing one another.”
Graham’s vision has inspired other cities to copy his success. In Missouri, realtor Linda Brown and her husband David, have also transformed abandoned properties into micro homes for homeless residents.
The couple raised over $4.75 million dollars and opened in 2018, Eden Village, erecting 31 tiny homes that are now fully occupied with former homeless individuals.
Jonathan Fisher, one of the residence of Eden Village, acknowledged he was battling substance abuse and was living on the streets for almost two years when he first met Linda Brown, who has since changed his life.
“In the worst moments of my life, Linda gave me guidance, care, and made me feel like I was still worth something,” Fisher says. He says that Brown took the time to learn about how he became homeless, and then encouraged him as he rebuilt his life. She even offered him a job.
Fisher is now clean, and works full time for Brown, maintaining the 31 homes. He also provides guidance to former homeless individuals struggling to get back to a meaningful life.