Formerly Homeless Find Good Neighbors at Community First! Village

A week's stay at Austin's most talked about neighborhood

Alan Graham at Community First! Village (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In 1981, Alan Graham walked up to a popular taco joint in Downtown Austin with a date on his arm. Just a few years after he dropped out of the physics department at the University of Texas, Graham was working in real estate. Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the religious organization he founded to feed and clothe the homeless, wasn't even a twinkle in his eye.

As the couple passed by, a man experiencing homelessness approached Graham's date – Tricia, now his wife – and asked for some money. Graham reacted intensely, putting his body between the two and berating the man. "Get a job," Tricia recalls him yelling at one point.

The encounter clearly affects Graham to this day, as he recounts the story from his home in Community First! Village, MLF's innovative supportive housing program in eastern Travis County. "It was a weird experience, man," he says. "In a lot of ways, Christ was up in heaven with a big alligator tear coming down one side, and on the other side a Cheshire cat grin, knowing ..."

"... what he had in store for you," Tricia finishes. The couple laughs together.

The Grahams are telling me this over dinner in late September, while I'm staying at the village near Lake Walter E. Long, just outside the Austin city limits. I'm there to see how Community First! Village has grown in its four years of existence; among its new neighbors are the Grahams themselves, who in 2017 left their 3,000-square-foot home in West Lake Hills to move into their very own microhome in the village. It's not uncommon to see residents poking their heads into the Grahams' place to say hello. Tricia spent the previous night in the emergency room with an ill neighbor. Being on the ground has further immersed them in the community that Graham is creating.

So how did Graham go from harassing folks on the street to living with and serving the chronically homeless? Seventeen years after that incident, Graham began his ministry at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which has served a mind-boggling 5 million meals over the last 20 years. Speaking to people that he fed on the streets, in the parks, and under bridges, Graham had all his old prejudices stripped away.

As I prepare for a week's stay in one of the village's Airbnb suites, Graham assures me I'm in for a crash course in community, warts and all. "We're all individual tiles on the mosaic of the body of Christ," he says. "We have a tendency to, when people fail to meet our expectations, want to pull their tiles off that mosaic."

A Longhorn in the Blue Aggie

At Community First!, the goal is to lead all of us to recognize that, as a society, we don't have the option of writing off the least among our neighbors. Writing off those with mental illness or addictions or disabilities, those who were in prison, those without educations or skills or supportive people in their lives, has led to the crisis of homelessness we face as a nation. Community First! provides a place for people who have no other place – one where they're not isolated. Villagers pay rent and are expected to obey civil law and community rules, and Graham and MLF aim to "empower the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless."

The Community Inn brings in funds from travelers to sustain MLF’s services, but it also keeps the village connected with the outside world. People come from across the globe to stay.

I'm staying in what Graham likes to call the "most talked-about neighborhood" in Austin. The row of Airbnbs that makes up the Community Inn, my home for the week, serves a dual purpose. Like the rest of the microhomes in the community, the Blue Aggie where I'm residing was designed and constructed by a sponsor, in this case a class at Texas A&M. As a UT graduate, I crack more than a couple of jokes about it – but you can't deny the craftsmanship. The Community Inn obviously brings in funds from travelers to sustain MLF's supportive services, but it also keeps the village connected with the outside world. People come from across the globe to stay.

In 2015, the first year of operations, the village grew from 15 to 30 residents. Now, 160 formerly homeless people live on the property in trailers or custom-designed tiny houses. That number includes missionals, in addition to the Grahams, who were not homeless but feel a calling to live in the community. The community's Phase II expansion, which kicked off in October as MLF celebrated its 20th anniversary, will make room for another 310 units.

Walking through the village the first night, accompanied by my dog Tali, it's striking to see just how much of a real neighborhood it is. A child belonging to one of the missional families living on campus flies past us on a bicycle. Neighbors sit together on their porches and shoot the breeze. I can hear somebody binge watching Forensic Files as I stroll through.

On another day, Jerome Johnson is kind enough to give me a tour of his tiny home, which is equipped with a luxurious second-story porch. Once new villagers qualify, MLF works to connect them with a home suitable to their needs. Johnson says he could've moved in months earlier had he chosen the first available home, but he saw the porch house being built and had to have it. He waited extra months living under a lean-to while the sponsors completed construction.

Jerome Johnson waited for months while his tiny home with a second-story porch was being built. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In the same week, crews are beginning to clear land on what will become Phase II of the village. During last year's unveiling of the plans for the expansion, Graham asked the community for an ambitious $60 million to make it happen. Just under a year later, the Phase II groundbreaking commenced. (Graham also revealed at that event his vision for future phases III and IV.)

Along with the expansion, MLF continues to focus on connecting Community First! residents – particularly the 30% Graham says have no money coming in – to steady streams of income. "How can we get them up off the streets now, allow them to heal, and then help them stabilize their income source?"

So Far Away

Spending the week about a 20-minute car ride from the Chronicle offices, it became clear that transportation is a major challenge facing members of the community. Going back and forth between Community First! and City Hall made for some interesting logistical challenges – but at least I have a functioning vehicle. Many residents don't have that luxury and rely on a single Capital Metro bus line to access other parts of the city. The 237 feeder route runs only once an hour, with the last bus at 8pm, and only takes riders from the village as far as Tannehill Lane, where they catch other buses to their destinations.

Uta, who lives at the village with her husband, told me it takes about an hour and a half to get from the village to Downtown. That's one thing the couple has struggled to adjust to at Community First!. "We're so far away from everything," she laments. She wishes the village had its own Chronicle rack and explains that many neighbors have mobility or health issues that prevent them from accessing much of the city.

It's not by chance that the village is so far from the heart of Austin (at least until the constant highway construction through the area is completed and our sprawling metro swallows it). A decade ago, when he first envisioned an RV park for the formerly homeless (then known as Habitat on Wheels), Graham struggled to find a suitable plot of land within a reasonable distance from town. Mobile Loaves & Fishes worked in 2008 to lease city-owned land on Harold Court, about three miles closer in, but the deal fell through after intense opposition from the Lin­coln Gardens Neighbor­hood Association, which expressed grave concerns about people with criminal histories potentially living nearby. "People start preaching to me that I should have compassion," said one neighbor to the Chronicle at the time, "but the thing I'm most proud of in my life is buying a home in this neighborhood." ("Homeless RV Park Seeks Good Neighbors," June 27, 2008.)

The real-world experience of Community First! Village suggests those neighbors' fears were largely unfounded. Graham says the overwhelming majority of 911 calls at the village are prompted by verbal disputes that have gotten out of hand and need to be mediated. The entire community-building focus of the operation is based on respect and de-escalation – what the Grahams describe as "restorative justice." And they're not just assigning this duty to MLF's robust staff. During a community meal one evening, I saw one neighbor become agitated to the point of shouting over a misplaced meal tray. Before the situation could deteriorate further, a screen door opened and Tricia's head poked out. She called for the woman, defused the situation, and the meal went on.

When the village's first round of homes was being built, the Genesis Garden was the first landmark. That's where neighbors cultivate produce for the village farmers' market. As it's grown, the village has also developed permaculture gardens, chicken coops, and pasture land for goats.

Some members of the community get food for free. "We don't really turn anybody away that's hungry," says one gardener, who's been living at the village since its groundbreaking in 2014. "That's why I work in the garden: so I can feed people I know are hungry."

The Spark of Enterprise

As the community has grown, its enterprise opportunities have as well. In addition to the gardens, there is now a forge, woodshop, auto shop, cinema, and art studio at the village, where neighbors can use skills they already have or learn new ones to secure new sources of income. Under careful supervision of the shop manager, I made a cutting board in the woodshop. It takes a steady hand to sand the wood, which this writer obviously doesn't have: The kitchen utensil flew into the wall on more than one occasion. Even still, it'll go up for sale in the community market, where both visitors and neighbors shop.

A tiny house in Community First! Village (Photo by Jana Birchum)
There is now a forge, woodshop, auto shop, cinema, and art studio at the village, where neighbors can use skills they already have or learn new ones to secure new sources of income.

My friend Uta spends her time at the art studio, and she shows me her ceramic work, which runs the gamut from full nativity scenes (one of which sold for a whopping $900) to whimsical pots carved into smiling faces – "potheads," she calls them. The artists here vary greatly in style and skill level, and they help each other with tips and suggestions.

"It was not my choice to be homeless," she says as she works on one such piece, shaping a groove of an eyebrow. "I didn't choose it. My husband didn't choose it. Circumstances can get you there quick. Can throw you out of that normal life so you're not a part of it anymore." It's a theme you hear time and time again at Community First!. Those of us lucky enough not to have found ourselves without a roof can't imagine just how quickly security can disappear.

As Uta and I work, a disagreement bubbles up in the studio. A neighbor has come to skim some coffee grounds out of the studio's supply. While anyone's welcome to come by and have a cup, the art house director explains to the man, the actual coffee grounds are in limited supply and must stay within the studio.

The discussion turns sour enough to require the arrival of a couple of sheriff's deputies, who are able to de-escalate without a problem. During our sit-down, Graham tells me the majority of conflict at the village consists of such incidents of people shouting at each other. Instead of casting people out (except in extreme cases), the community works it out amongst themselves or with the aid of law enforcement.

That's the part of life that Graham is trying to build a safety net against. He credits most homelessness to a "catastrophic loss of family," which the community of neighbors is designed to ameliorate. That's an attractive proposition for people who have lost everything.

I met Terry just days after he'd moved into Community First!. He'd already made himself an usher at the weekly church service in the village chapel, and he found himself a job at the car care center. He recounts, with evident trauma, how he lost his mother, his housing, and his dog Ellie in one fell swoop. Living under an oak tree outside of a laundromat in November, he recalls stripping naked, "freezing my buns off," to bathe himself with a water hose connected to the building. He doesn't like to recall that time, but "there are some things in life that, no matter what, you can never forget," he said.

But his eyes brimmed with hope when he discussed his new life at Community First! Village. "They're going to find out I'm an asset to this community."

See more of Jana Birchum's images from Community First! Village in her photo gallery.

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Community First! Village, Alan Graham, Tricia Graham, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, supportive housing, homelessness

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