On Wednesday, an overflow crowd gathered at a groundbreaking for an innovative concept to take homeless people off of Austin streets. Alan Graham, president and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the social outreach ministry behind the effort, noted that the day culminated more than 10 years of hard work by people throughout the city.
Community First! is a 27-acre, master-planned project in East Austin designed to provide affordable, sustainable housing and support for Central Texans who have been chronically homeless. It includes a mix of housing options including 100 lots for RVs, 125 micro-homes and canvas-sided cottages or platform tents and 12 tipi sites.
Community First! is a 27-acre, master-planned project to provide affordable, sustainable housing and support for Central Texans who have been chronically homeless.
The micro-homes will rent for $210 per month and range from 144 to 180 square feet. They have electricity and are designed for natural cooling with airflow to minimize power use. The 12-by-12 foot canvas cottages are built on a deck and have a wall socket and ceiling light and will rent for $180 per month. Both have covered front porches, and residents will have use of outdoor kitchens, private bathrooms, and shower and laundry facilities located on the property. MLF is taking applications from future residents and in six months plans to start moving people in at a slow and steady pace.
A large community garden, bee hives and chicken operations are already up and running on the site. Dozens of chickens occupy a large indoor coop made of mostly repurposed materials — old drawers as laying boxes, for example — and an even larger, shaded outdoor yard. Eight long garden rows and more than a dozen raised beds are full of a variety of vegetables and herbs, helped along by a movable rabbit hutch. Vegetables and eggs are used on MLF food trucks, which serve daily meals on the streets.
The property also has a workshop equipped with tools for woodworking and other micro-enterprises, a near-life-sized chess board and several outdoor gathering places. Plans include a memorial garden and columbarium, aquaponics fish operation, medical facility offering physical and mental health screenings and support services including hospice and respite care, and walking trails.
There will also be an outdoor theater designed by the Alamo Drafthouse and a bed and breakfast featuring vintage Airstreams and 26-foot diameter tipis. The B&B will facilitate community involvement with residents and provide residents with jobs in hospitality, food service, housekeeping and maintenance. Graham notes that visitors to Austin events such as ACL Fest and SXSW will be welcome to book the facilities, with income plowed back into the project.
Community First!, a long-time dream of Graham’s, had several false starts when would-be neighbors shot down prospective locations. Those who work with the chronically homeless say it is critical to address basic needs such as housing before trying to solve problems such as mental illness, health problems and substance abuse. Graham explains, for example, that it is nearly impossible for those living on the streets to get jobs without an address or a place to clean up for an interview. The project aims to address the root causes of chronic homelessness.
“The primary cause of homelessness is a catastrophic loss of family,” Graham told the groundbreaking crowd. The village fills much of that lost need by creating a community. Austin has about 6,000 people living on the streets, nearly 1,000 of them disabled, consuming as much as $40 million in services each year. MLF has helped 99 of them into permanent homes, with 87 percent successfully remaining off the street.
The groundbreaking event also served to launch the final phase of fundraising for Community First!. With $7 million in funding secured for the infrastructure, a 12-month campaign will raise an additional $5 million needed for the housing units.