People think that if you house the homeless then you’ve solved homelessness. But the CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Alan Graham, says that’s not true. He’s creating a radically different approach that turns our current response to homelessness upside down. He’s building an entire village for the chronically homeless of Austin, Texas. You might say he’s a bit … proactive.
Imagine you’re living on the streets. Your family has broken down. You’ve had some mental health issues. You lost your job, got arrested for loitering, then arrested again for trespassing because you wanted to sleep with a roof over your head. And again for public intoxication. You live on the streets, where else are you going to get drunk? And how can you not drink? You’re eating out of trash cans for gosh sake. Life’s hard. You can’t catch a break.
But then you do catch a break. The sun rises one day and you get to move from your cardboard box on the dark, cold street to a rad mini pad. It has a couch, a table and even a bed. You get to have 250 neighbors and friends … even chicken and goat friends. Yep, you’re living in a 27-acre village and farm.
You’re lucky! Like one in 578,424 lucky. Yeah, that’s how many people were spending the night on the streets of the U.S. in January 2014. You get to snuggle down into a nice warm bed. A bed! You haven’t slept in one of those in years. In the morning you can wake up and check on your tomato plants in the community garden. In the evening you sit in a rocking chair and swig down a cool beverage on your front porch. Yeah, a porch. A cool little spot where you can sit and stare across the serene landscape of plants, gardens, walking trails, a wood and blacksmith shop, art studio, physical and mental health facilities, chicken coop, goat pen, and 250 little mini houses and fancy trailers dotting the village. It feels so, *sigh*, relaxing.
The Community First Village that Graham is building is all of this and more. He says the idea came to him while vacationing in a hunting and fishing campsite with RVs. Oh, and he was also a real estate agent. That helps too. He says the village plan is “built on an RV community model, but on steroids.” (Steroids like a movie theater, meditation area, and bed and breakfast.)
A myriad of issues can cause homelessness, but Graham says that after becoming intimate friends with hundreds of chronically homeless people, he sees family breakdown as the main cause.
The people moving in once had lives “probably a lot like your life. Inside your family, you’ve had issues,” he says. “I don’t know what the issues are in your family. You probably have a mom, a dad, an aunt or an uncle [who] has battled addictions or behavioral health issues … So, these are those people, but without a family structure that came up underneath them to provide a safety net. So really, they’re me and you — without a family.”
If the main problem is a breakdown in the family, then just giving people homes doesn’t end homelessness. You also have to give them a supportive community, a family. This is what the Community First Village is accomplishing.
Just as importantly, the housing itself is quite different than what is typically provided to the homeless. “If you really want to understand homelessness it would be important to understand what home is,” he says. The current model is to rip the homeless out of their street communities and plop them down in a shelter or apartment. Lodging like this isn’t a home.
If that’s not a home, then what is? A home is a permanent place you can call your own. You can hang up pictures on the wall and invite your friends over for a cup of coffee. It’s safe. You have friends nearby and make memories. You belong there. It’s not a temporary shelter.
A private apartment won’t feel like home either because you won’t be around anyone like you. You won’t have anyone to talk to because your vibrant street community was taken from you. Studies show that living in isolation leads to lonesomeness and depression – that doesn’t exactly work wonders for your health. You also have to have a supportive community, a family.
This new model of housing the homeless in a charming little community appeals to human nature so deeply that advocates for the homeless from across the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Ireland are visiting to explore the village model. Just about everyone who visits says, “I would live here! This is great!” It’s interesting that something built for extraordinarily poor people is so appealing to the middle class.
In addition to providing a home and community for the homeless, the Community First Village is also saving the city of Austin a significant amount of money. Graham says the city spends about $40,000 per homeless person per year. The main expenses come from medical providers and the criminal justice system.
He estimates the Community First Village will save Austin 2 to 3 million dollars per year from now on. That’s a lot of taxpayer moolah. The city is supportive of the Community First Village, but it has not financially contributed. All funding for the village project was privately donated.
The operating expenses for the village will be partially paid for by the people living there. Village residents will spend $225 to $500 per month to rent a home. The cost is so low that most of the residents can cover it with their Social Security benefits. They can also work in the village or city to earn money. The city bus stops right outside the village. How convenient.
This new strategy to house the homeless is a response to an old model that isn’t working. Graham points to Skid Row in Los Angeles as an example. “It’s a train wreck,” he says. “It’s a third-world country in a 10-square-block area in [Los Angeles] — one of the most abundant cities on the face of the planet. Unbelievable that it exists in the United States of America.”
So, what can you do to help out? Graham suggests trying to prevent homelessness in the first place. Since one of the causes of homelessness is loss of family, he advises, “Go build relationships with other human beings and start caring for them as if they’re your family.”
Photo credits: 1) Used with permission from Community First Village, 2-3) Renee Farris