“The problem of homelessness is not Obama’s, it’s ours.” For 18 years, Alan Graham’s ministry, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, has provided food, clothing, health products, and social activities to Austin’s homeless. “The old model of service was based on scarcity. The homeless came to a place and got what was served. We took a different approach. We came to them. We served food that’s fresh, the highest quality. In our country, high quality food is not available to the poor. Many people in the Third World eat better. We let people choose.”
Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ unique approach led to something Alan considers more important than food and clothing; relationships with homeless individuals rather than transactions across a soup counter. “Homelessness is created as a manifestation of hopelessness. It is not economic abuse. It’s a failure of the family, whenever that happens.”
The organization began to provide housing in RVs throughout Austin, at one point 115 folks. The rent structure of private RV parks proved problematic. Alan realized there would be advantages to bringing formerly homeless people together. The result is Community First, a village of RVs, tiny houses, and teepees on 27 acres in northeast Austin.
Alan teamed with a variety of local companies and philanthropic individuals to build the 250 dwelling campus organized into five neighborhoods. One neighborhood is a collection of RV sites. The other four neighborhoods consist of tiny houses ranging from 252 to 400 square feet, and permanent tent dwellings. Each tiny house has indoor space, electricity, and a front porch, but no plumbing. Each neighborhood includes a collective toilet/shower/laundry building and a cooking pavilion where residents can prepare meals. Tent shelters rent for $225 per month; tiny houses are approximately $325 per month; RV’s rent for $380 per month plus electricity. Since baseline SSI in the state of Texas is $780 a month, even people who have no other source of income can afford to live at Community First. Construction is well along; 35 people have already moved in.
At the entrance to the community is a grocery and health center as well as an outdoor amphitheater with movie screen, amenities the village will share with neighboring developments. Within the compound, neighborhoods are organized around a six-acre garden and a central space that includes a prayer labyrinth, a playground, a human size chess set, and a burial memorial. Alan calls it the circle of life. “For many homeless, there is no marker that commemorates their death. We want to change that.”
The week before we met, the Chamber of Commerce named Alan Austinite of the Year; an honor he was too humble to reveal that I learned it from his Communications Director. For all that Austin’s affluence obscures its bohemian roots, I appreciate that the Chamber of Commerce recognized a citizen so vocal about the community’s problems:
“Austin may be the most elite city in United States, except maybe San Francisco.
“The city attempted to enact regulations against Lyft. In three weeks we gathered 65,000 signatures on an initiative petition to put that on the ballot.
“Most of the homeless are not W-2 employable but they are entrepreneurial. Unfortunately, Our society obstructs them. I can panhandle on the street but I can’t sell flowers or water without a license. The city criminalizes poverty.
“What kills community? Refrigerators. Before refrigerators, we shared bounty. Now we store it and protect it from others.
“Don’t use the term sustainable unless you’re Amish.
“The cell phone is the biggest environmental disaster in history of man. Millions of people are going to suffer adverse effects from what the phones are doing to us.”
Alan acknowledges that when we move beyond warm and fuzzy slogans, the actions required to make the earth a more equitable place are difficult. “Consider Stuart Brand and his whole earth discipline. When he actually outlined the steps society would need to take, people were outraged:
- If we want to sustain, we have to build nuclear.
- If we are going to support seven billion people we are going to need laboratory food.
- You can’t mess with the world. Mother will retaliate; she’ll eliminate you. Don’t fix the earth; fix the people.”
As our culture has diminished community, we’ve diminished our quality of life. “When I was a kid we had a community pool. Now we each have our own in our backyard.” Alan believes the community Mobile Loaves and Fishes is creating will strike a healthier balance between private space and common resources than the adjacent subdivision of 2000 square-foot, self-contained houses.
Approximately 20% of Community First residents are what Alan calls ‘missionaries,’ people who have the financial and social ability to live other places but choose to live here. I met a cardiac nurse who moved into an RV. “We are building a community for the homeless that the richest will want to live in.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“Are you familiar with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? One habit is is to begin with the end in mind. I am writing a book. The last chapter is called, ‘With Beginning in Mind.’
“Start with Genesis Chapter 2, God created the Garden of Eden. It had everything man needed. The river penetrated and split four ways. Genesis 2:15: ‘The Lord God took the man, settled him in the garden to care for him.’ We as human beings have a desire to reconnect, back to the beginning. Community First isn’t paradise, but it puts us in a position to get back to paradise.”