Community First! Unveils Microhomes for the Chronically Homeless

Village is designed to be a community of 250 homes


A Community First! microhouse (Photo by John Anderson)

Founded by Alan Graham, CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Community First! Village is a privately funded, 27-acre community with microhomes, RVs, and guest cottages, exclusively for the chronically homeless. Last Saturday's open house event provided a peek into the community that not only provides housing, but a home for some of Austin's homeless population.

While cities like Portland, Seattle, and Nashville have adopted microhomes in efforts to combat homelessness, Graham said his vision is the first of its kind in the U.S. Instead of isolated units, Graham views Community First! as a $14.5 million mansion, where residents live together and share communal spaces like bathrooms and kitchens to cultivate a sense of community.

"People are coming from all over the U.S. to look at what we're doing here," Graham said. "We're trying to create spaces for people that no matter what economic strata you come from in life, you say, 'I want to live here.'"

Through a coordinated application process with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), the chronically homeless can apply to live at Community First!, where residents have access to on-site medical and behavioral health care, plus an organic farm, blacksmith shop, and market to develop skills that sustain the community.

The seeds for Community First! were planted 12 years ago, when Graham bought a gently used RV to house a homeless person. After the success of that initiative, he began buying more RVs, eventually forming Community First! Village, which he calls an "RV park on steroids."

Because Austin wouldn't let Graham build tiny homes inside city limits, Graham began developing nearly eight miles away from Downtown, off of Decker Lane. Initially, the idea was met with trepidation by surrounding community members. "We're trying to help our neighbors control what happens in their neighborhoods too, because that's where the crime is, not here," he said.

Ellis Johnston, 51, met Graham eight years ago and was offered an RV home. Formerly homeless, Johnston now lives in Community First! and doesn't plan to leave anytime soon. He works three days a week, caring for the fruit trees which provide harvest for the weekly farmers' market, and also helps out with other tasks. "I came to the right spot," Johnston said. "It took a while, but [Graham] helped me start working and eventually he helped me get housing. And here I am, helping to build a community."

The community is governed by three fundamental rules, said Graham. The first, paying rent, which ranges from $225 to $360. To help with rent, most residents are eligible for government benefits and have opportunities to work. The second, residents must obey civil law. And the third is following the community association's guidelines.

Currently, there are 40 people living at Community First! and in May that number will increase by 15 a month, with a capacity of 250 by early next year. Although the community can only house 250 people, Graham plans to expand someday and influence other initiatives across the country.

"I think the ultimate vision is this movement that we call 'community first,' where we're inspiring communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless," Graham said. "If you want to mitigate this issue you've got to quit pointing the finger at Washington. They're not going to solve this problem; they can't; it's impossible. We can at the local level."


For more photos of the Community First! Village, see "Community First! Open House," April 4, at austinchronicle.com/photos.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Community First!, Alan Graham, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, homelessness

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