People who were homeless find housing -- and community -- at an RV/tiny home village
Residents find new life at the corner of Goodness Way and Peaceful Path in Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. Photos by Brian Diggs
Housing alone can’t heal the wounds of homelessness. That also takes community. Just outside Austin, people are finding both at Community First! Village.
On the first night in his new RV, Cody Stone stared at the queen bed. Neatly made with new linens, it looked far more inviting than the low concrete wall where he used to sleep in downtown Austin, Texas. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to pull back the covers and get in.
The gleaming, fully furnished RV -- his new home at Community First! Village, a master-planned development for people who have been chronically homeless -- brought the past several years of Stone’s life into stark relief: two bouts with rectal cancer, abuse from his meth-addicted ex-boyfriend, an eviction that landed him on the streets, and beatings that he took there.
That first night, Stone, a slender man who wears leg braces and speaks with a Florida drawl, felt overwhelmed and alone. He slept on the couch.
But over the next few days, Stone, 51, began meeting his neighbors. They brought welcome gifts and dinner invitations and showed him around the property. He started thinking about new possibilities -- he could cook again, do his own landscaping, make friends.
Occupying 27 acres about 8 miles northeast of downtown Austin, Community First! Village is a residential development with 240 micro homes and RVs run by a faith-based nonprofit, Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Most residents have previously been homeless for long stretches, some living on the streets for decades. But about 20 percent are “missional” residents -- retirees, families with young children and others who feel called to live there and to serve.
The philosophy of Mobile Loaves & Fishes is simple: homelessness is caused primarily by a “profound, catastrophic loss of family.” Housing alone won’t heal that wound; community will.
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That vision, now embraced by thousands of donors and volunteers, came from Alan Graham, the organization’s founder and CEO. A former real estate developer, Graham experienced a spiritual awakening more than 20 years ago that led him to abandon his career and devote his life to serving Austin’s poorest and most marginalized community.
“The people who were suffering on the street needed an advocate,” Graham said. “I call myself the P.T. Barnum of the homeless.”
Graham and five friends from St. John Neumann Catholic Church started Mobile Loaves & Fishes in the late 1990s as a food truck ministry serving people on the streets. Now he’s overseeing phase two of Community First and a $60 million capital campaign to provide homes to hundreds more people. He gives daily tours and leads quarterly symposiums for nonprofit leaders and city officials who travel from around the country to study the Community First model.
‘The most phenomenal community’
Graham, 62, and his wife, Tricia, the resident care director at the village, live there too, in a 399-square-foot cottage.
“This is the most phenomenal community I’ve ever lived in,” he said. “These neighbors I have here are so fun, so incredible -- with a few knuckleheads for flavor on the side.”
On any given day, Community First buzzes with activity. A community garden, an art house, a blacksmith forge, a woodshop and a concessions business provide residents with a chance to learn new skills and earn money. Last year, more than 9,700 people volunteered at the village. Sometimes hundreds show up for the free movie nights -- first-run films shown on a full-size screen donated by Austin-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
On a recent overcast morning, the sounds of new construction reverberated through the village. Residents tended the gardens and chickens and gathered stray branches from the winding stone walkway. The aroma of burning coals wafted from the blacksmith shop. Travelers checked into the property’s bed and breakfast -- tiny houses, Airstream trailers and teepees booked through Airbnb. Missional residents checked in on neighbors.
In a tent-shaped chapel designed by an Austin architecture firm to resemble the biblical tabernacle, Sister Barbara James, a Catholic nun in full habit, greeted neighbors with coffee, doughnuts and fruit.
James, a sister with the Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour, said she got a “Holy Spirit high” on her first visit to Community First and immediately felt called to serve there.
Jesus and Java, her twice-a-week gathering, is one of many community-building exercises at the village. Many residents struggle to adjust, she said, especially in the first few months.
“We know it’s a success when we have residents here talking,” she said.
Outside the chapel, Graham traded good-natured barbs with his neighbors. One man jokingly called him Papa Smurf. He gets other nicknames, too -- Papa Bear, Daddy Dog and, though he resists it, Saint.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Graham made his fortune as a real estate developer and entrepreneur. He could be ostentatious -- signing checks with a $2,000 pen, christening a new boat with a bottle of Dom Perignon. He emulated Donald Trump and Dallas developer Trammell Crow.
But as a child of divorce, he was also determined to keep his family together, so he began accompanying his wife and four children to Mass at St. John Neumann and learning about the Catholic faith.
A vision of ministry
In 1996, at a Catholic men’s retreat, Graham confronted his spiritual brokenness, asking God, “What do you want me to do?” The answer, he said, came in a vision: a catering truck that would deliver sandwiches to people living on the streets of Austin.
Soon, Graham pulled together a group of parishioners, including the church’s janitor, Houston Flake, who had previously been homeless. As they met to draft a business plan, the group decided that they would distribute not only sandwiches and coffee but also phone cards so people could call their families.
Flake pulled Graham aside. Most homeless people don’t have anyone to call, he said. They don’t need phone cards; they need new socks. Flake urged Graham to meet his friends where they lived -- in alleyways and tents and under bridges.
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Graham said that Flake, who died in 2002, taught him that a ministry to people who are homeless must be relational, not transactional. To meet as many people as he could, Graham spent almost 200 nights sleeping on the streets and listening to tales of abuse and neglect.
As Graham’s role models shifted from Trump and Crow to Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi, the ministry grew, adding more trucks and congregations and a waiting list of volunteers. A Mobile Loaves & Fishes team traveled to other cities to teach curious church leaders the keys to the ministry: Always offer people choices. Don’t skimp on the meat. Introduce yourself.
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Graham called it “the gospel con carne.” But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to lift people off the streets and give them permanent homes in a supportive community. In 2004, the nonprofit began housing people -- eventually more than 100 -- in RV parks throughout Austin.
Graham still wasn’t satisfied. But his new vision -- “an RV park on steroids” for people who are homeless -- was a hard sell. In 2008, the city offered to lease 11 acres to the nonprofit, but residents in a nearby neighborhood objected, and the deal fell through. So did two other potential Austin sites.
But Graham wasn’t deterred.
The village takes shape
Eventually, he found a parcel outside the city limits where Austin’s zoning laws don’t apply. Leveraging his business connections and tapping into the nonprofit’s support in local faith communities, Graham quickly raised $18 million and mobilized volunteers. After years of planning and construction, residents began moving into Community First! Village in December 2015.
Today, about 170 people live in the village, including 150 who were formerly homeless. When the village reaches capacity, more than 200 formerly homeless men and women will live there, along with missional residents and others.
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To live there, applicants undergo an assessment process to make sure they qualify and have been chronically homeless. Once accepted, they move into a micro home or an RV, usually paying around $300 a month.
Because many struggle with mental health problems and addiction, Community First has social services offices, a clinic, recovery programs and other support services.
Tim Hendricks, a real estate developer who has known Graham since the 1980s, said Graham tackled homelessness with the same bold entrepreneurial spirit that he’d used as a businessman.
Last year, Hendricks encouraged fellow board members of the Downtown Austin Alliance, a business advocacy group, to award Mobile Loaves & Fishes a $2 million grant to help fund an additional 350 homes on an adjacent 24 acres.
“Alan’s model has been the first clear-cut proven way to deal with the chronically homeless,” Hendricks said. “It’s not the RV; it’s not the cool little micro homes that make it work. It’s the community.”
Elizabeth Bowen, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, said the Community First model could be very effective for people who are homeless and who hunger for relationships.
“But there’s generally not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Bowen, who researches homelessness.
Not a ‘cookie-cutter’ model
As “chief goodness officer” at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Amber Fogarty makes sure the organization stays true to its mission. She agrees that Community First is not a “cookie-cutter” model that can be applied everywhere. Zoning laws and political structures vary, she said. But, she stressed, people can at least make the effort to know the homeless in their communities.
“Often, homeless services become really transactional,” Fogarty said. “It becomes about the home … or about the sandwich you’re providing rather than about the relationship.”
Missional resident Suzanne McConkey said she had never spoken to a homeless person before she and her husband, Bob, both retirees in their 70s, toured Community First during its construction.
Inspired by Graham’s vision, they signed up to volunteer the next Saturday. And the next. Eventually, they moved their RV to the village to live there temporarily.
“We wanted to make a difference,” she said. “It ends up being a difference is made in you.”
Two and a half years later, the couple has no plans to leave. They joke about picking out a spot in the village’s columbarium.
John-Mark Echols, 29, said he was the “chief naysayer of homelessness” when he grudgingly attended a church service for street people in Midland, Texas, seven years ago. A consultant in the oil and gas industry at the time, he couldn’t understand how anyone could be homeless in a city with 2.5 percent unemployment. But after hearing people’s stories that day, he realized it was more complicated.
Like Graham, Echols wrestled with what it meant to live his faith. He started volunteering and founded a nonprofit, The Field’s Edge, to serve Midland’s homeless population. Last year, he and his wife and toddler daughter lived for four months in an RV at Community First as part of a Community Corps internship that allows people to live and work in the village to learn how it functions.
In the evenings, the family walked to the playground, visited the animals and shared meals with neighbors.
Roots and relationships
“I’d never really felt that sense of settledness [before],” Echols said. “Even though we knew we were temporary, it was easy to establish roots and build relationships.”
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Now back in Midland, Echols has a breakfast truck ministry and is working to start a smaller version of Community First.
By the map, the village is only 8 miles from downtown’s alleys and overcrowded shelters. But under the open Texas sky, surrounded by farmland and cedar trees, it feels more like a million, say residents who were once homeless.
Ron Dorsey, a 62-year-old Atlanta native with short dreadlocks, moved into a tiny house six months ago after being homeless for four years. His previous residence was a downtown shelter notorious for attracting drug dealers and prostitutes.
“People steal your stuff,” Dorsey said of his time there. “They’re always arguing. It’s hard to sleep at night.”
Living at Community First, he said, is “truly a blessing,” but it takes some getting used to.
Getting a home doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly OK for someone who has been homeless, said Fogarty, the chief goodness officer.
Once settled in, new residents often feel the full weight of childhood abuse, sexual assault and other traumas, she said.
Echols said Community First has occasional problems such as fighting, noise complaints or health crises. But they aren’t very different from those in any neighborhood; they just happen out in the open rather than behind closed doors.
He said residents and staff members have to be particularly vigilant when disability and Social Security checks arrive and drug dealers show up looking for customers. Echols once saw Tricia Graham chase a crack dealer off the property at 3 a.m.
Some residents’ mental health issues prove too challenging for the community. Mobile Loaves & Fishes staff members help those individuals find different accommodations.
But they offer second chances, too.
Michael McCullough got the boot last year when he flattened a neighbor’s tires after a dispute. A 62-year-old with a thick beard and weathered face, McCullough said he was depressed, anxious and drinking heavily at the time. The community urged him to go to rehab; instead, he went back to the life he’d known for more than three decades.
Six months back on the streets convinced him to get sober and reapply for a house.
“I ain’t getting no younger,” McCullough said. “I saw 80-year-olds out there. I didn’t want to be like that.”
Graham said McCullough is the third “bring back” since the village opened. Returnees, he said, must enter into a process of reconciliation, assuring the community that they have repented and will do better.
“Everybody is worthy of redemption,” Graham said, whether it’s the thief on the cross next to Jesus or “the guy on the corner smoking crack.”
That belief may be embodied most vividly in the Saturday house blessings that are held when people move in. Neighbors and volunteers flock to a gazebo near the village entrance and welcome new residents with symbolic gifts, including a loaf of bread so they will never know hunger and a handmade quilt so they will know warmth and comfort. The community recites prayers and sings “Amazing Grace.”
By the end of the ceremony, people are usually crying.
Last month, the community officially welcomed Cody Stone and another man, Bruce Scott, 55. Graham gave Stone his quilt and a bear hug.
The Rev. Ed Lundin, a retired Episcopal priest who serves as a missional chaplain, asked Stone whether he wanted to say anything. Stone shyly took the microphone and recounted the fear and loneliness of his first night in the RV.
“I’m used to being around a lot of people,” he added, gesturing to the crowd of about 50 gathered around him. “So this is good.”
His neighbors erupted in loud hoots and applause.
“Welcome home!” they cheered.