Then There's This: Sunshine for the Homeless

A proposed RV park would provide more than just shelter

Then There's This: Sunshine for the Homeless

It's hard to say how you'll react to an ambitious plan to provide homes for the chronically homeless when the project is slated to take shape half a mile from your own home – in the form of an RV park.

In this case, the Sunshine RV Park for homeless singles and couples – a long-deferred dream of local nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes – is proposed for a 27-acre site in northeast Travis County. It's just outside the city limits, but close enough to come under some city development regulations, and close enough to draw strong opposition from nearby neighborhoods.

Last week, after hearing objections from many neighborhood residents, the Zoning and Platting Commission unanimously approved a preliminary plan for the proposed community at 9301 Hog Eye, off Decker Lane near FM 969. The site is located about a mile from the nearest bus stop and, by most accounts, is not yet easily accessible on foot or bicycle. At any rate, the proposal now goes to Travis County Commissioners Court to consider in mid-to-late August, and appears on course to win approval there as well.

Alan Graham, founder and president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, has for 15 years led the nonprofit's mobile mission of delivering 1,000 meals a day to homeless people. By now, he is accustomed to hearing neighborhood opposition to his longtime goal of providing permanent housing for the chronically homeless in a safe, supportive environment. In 2008, the city withdrew plans to lease the nonprofit an 11-acre site in East Austin after thunderous protests from neighbors. The city subsequently explored two other sites – one near the airport and another near Burnet and Braker Lane – but those ideas were also scrapped due to opposition.

This time Mobile Loaves is presenting its plan with the backing of private investors and hands-on support from other nonprofits. Without city, county, or federal funding, the financing and intricate details of the project remain rather vague – which may be the best way to get a sensitive project of this nature off the ground, but it's not an optimal method of winning over the neighbors.

Thinking Outside the Box

Yet the concept of "an innovative mix of housing options," on-site medical center, community garden, a workshop for "microbusinesses," and drive-in theatre/bed & breakfast does sound irresistible.

One of the nonprofit's biggest boosters – Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League – is the brains behind the drive-in and B&B concept. He told the commission his team of creative business thinkers would help kick-start and manage the enterprise, and predicted the B&B would become "one of the coolest places to stay" in the area during such events as South By Southwest and the Austin City Limits Festival.

It's true that Austin talks a big game about caring for the homeless, even as more development projects uproot these people from their campsites. The city has yet to produce anything innovative and unique that other cities can point to as a model. "We think of ourselves as leaders and progressive thinkers, and yet we're still a little bit behind the curve on [providing] the support services for this very vulnerable population," League said.

A few residents and even ZAP Vice Chair Patricia Seeger took it upon themselves to visit the site to gain a better understanding of what the project entails. Seeger acknowledged her initial skepticism when she visited the site because of her concerns about neighborhood safety and transportation issues. But any worries she had were quickly allayed once she was able to put a human face on the project. She was sold on the idea after seeing what's already taking place on the site – people growing vegetables and making furniture, for example. "They were there supporting themselves for a better cause," she said. Seeger was so effusive in her praise for the project that after a few minutes ZAP Chair Betty Baker half-jokingly told her her time was up.

Judging from opponents' testimony, Mobile Loaves & Fishes and crew didn't sufficiently reach out to surrounding residents early in the process. The nonprofit could have reaped greater rewards had it borrowed a page from nonprofit Foundation Communities and secured a buy-in from neighborhood groups before the matter arrived at ZAP.

On that score, commission member Jason Meeker advised the two sides to start communicating with one another. Meeker told opponents he had fought a Wal-Mart from going in at Northcross Mall, but after a series of unsuccessful battles with the retail giant, both sides began talking to each other and ultimately reached a compromise, with the end result being a scaled-down Wal-Mart.

"I'm usually the easiest vote you can get if you're an angry neighborhood against a development," Meeker said. Then he cast his vote with the majority for a project that could for once put Austin on the map for thinking outside the box about homelessness.

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