DevOpsDays Austin sponsored this great charity this year with our proceeds, and the program is so cool I wanted to do a whole post on it.
Community First! Village “is a 51-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness.” It consists of 200+ micro-homes and RVs and supporting infrastructure, they’re at 78% of capacity already, and they are planning for another 300 homes to be built. They’re located in southeast Austin out near the Travis County Expo Center.
And it’s really nice! The primary kind of residence are little mini-houses, 180-200 square feet in size, with electricity but no plumbing. There are standalone bathroom buildings with individual lockable rooms. There’s kitchen buildings for more extensive cooking. There’s RVs, more expensive but better for those with medical problems. There’s a community garden (with chickens and bees), a store, a hairdresser, a garage, a forge, and more. Heck, there’s a bus stop and an Amazon dropbox.
Here’s a series of pictures I took on our tour.
Austin has around 2200 homeless, and the number continues to rise. My parents visited me in Austin a couple months ago, and we went out and ate and they were shocked by how many were on the street, especially as we drove through the “shelter district” downtown. There are many efforts to help, but this is an approach I hadn’t heard of before, and wanted to share with everyone.
How Does It Work?
Donna Emery, the Director of Development for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, gave us a tour and told us all about it. She’d love any of you to come tour the village as well! Mobile Loaves & Fishes as an organization has been serving the homeless for many years, and this is their deeply considered idea at making a permanent difference.
The village isn’t a shelter; it’s intended to be permanent. They identify candidates for the village via social workers and the array of people trying to help the increasing homeless population (there’s a database they all use to track homeless clients and try to get them services and such). The person says they want to get into the Village, and there’s an about 12 month runway program to get them ready and in.
There are three rules to living in the village.
- Have to pay rent. Micro-homes rent for $275-$375/month, the RVs more like $435. They work to ensure they have their social services and encourage “dignified income” working in the village or otherwise. 96% of the residents pay their rent on time, which is better than your average apartment building!
- Have to follow civil law. This isn’t “anything goes”, and safety is paramount. They don’t turn you away if you have a alcohol or substance abuse problem – you’re only going to get over that if you have housing – but crime isn’t allowed. It isn’t a major problem for them; homeless are generally the victims, not the perpetrators, of crimes (other than the criminalization of being homeless, of course). Applicants do have criminal background checks – they don’t disqualify you out of hand for having a record though, but don’t allow sex offenders and evaluate a past of violent crime carefully.
- Have to follow the rules of the community (like a strict HOA) – you have to care for your neighborhood. This isn’t a jungle, it’s a community. The place was very clean and well tended. (Pets are welcome, though! We spoke with a man walking his dog at length on our tour.)
Last year, residents earned $650k in “dignified income” – working in the gardens, crafting, doing maintenance, working in the garage and market… You can make $900/mo from a job cleaning the community bathrooms, for example. Donna stressed that they don’t rely on handouts – it harms the dignity of the people and you don’t take care of things that are free. When a major tech company donated a bunch of tablets, they set up a monthly tablet rental. “But those are free, we’re giving them to you, don’t make money off them,” they initially complained. But MLF explained that handouts are an unhealthy dynamic, and this way the renters respect the tablets – and themselves – more. They’ve put a lot of thought and experience into creating a place where communities and lives can grow for people that have had nothing.
Of course, they provide a lot of help, from social services to things like teaching them to use Netspend for money management.
Blue ribbon Austin business and organizations have donated a lot of the infrastructure to make this work – Alamo Drafthouse, HEB, Charles Maund, the Topfer family, and many more.
Really A Community
But the thing I found the most striking about this is that it’s really a community, and a part of the larger community around it.
40% of the residents are women. There have been two weddings so far among the residents and two residents passed away with their wishes to be interred in the Village. The average age of homeless coming there is around 50 and they’ve been chronically homeless for around 10 years. This isn’t an attempt at “give them a shower and shave and get them a job and send them back out into the wild,” this is a permanent home where they can belong as long as they want. Donna shared with us that what really makes persistent homelessness is some kind of crisis combined with a collapse of a person’s social relationships – no family, no friends to help. Being sent away from a community doesn’t tend to form better social support, does it?
From their FAQ:
It’s all about relationships. Mobile Loaves & Fishes desires to empower the community around us into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. We achieve this vision through Community First! Village by taking a relational approach for connecting with our homeless brothers and sisters, instead of a transactional approach. When we bring an individual into community with others, we truly begin to make a sustainable impact on their lives.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes believes that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family. That’s why our focus at Community First! Village is to do more than just provide adequate housing. We have developed a community with supportive services and amenities to help address an individual’s relational needs at a fraction of the cost of traditional housing initiatives. We seek to empower our residents to build relationships with others, and to experience healing and restoration as part of engaging with a broader community.
The businesses aren’t just for the residents – you can go there to the garage and pay to get your oil changed. You can go attend their movie nights (the Alamo donated a projector) that are open to the public like any movie night in any park. They do things like a trail of lights during the holidays. There’s plenty of reasons for non-residents to go there, it’s not a “camp.” It’s just a subdivision, really, like any other one you’d drive through in Austin.
Heck, you can go live there. 170 of the occupants are former homeless, but there are also many “mission families” living there with them to provide help and more strongly tie them into the social fabric of the Austin community. Or you can rent spare homes on AirBNB! They have a hall (“Unity Hall”) that can accommodate up to 300 and there’s a commercial kitchen attached (also staffed by residents) so you can host events there – we started seriously looking at it for smaller tech events. (More pics are in the slideshow above).
How Can You Help?
Let’s get real. If you’re reading this tech blog you’re probably incredibly well off. Working for a company that’s incredibly well off. We have an embarrassment of riches in the tech scene here in Austin, living next to people with nothing. In DevOps we talk continually about collaboration, sharing, and community – one would think that our appetite for helping the less fortunate would go farther than just making sure you get an underrepresented person on your next tech panel.
You can help with funding. Their Phase II capital campaign is building more homes and supporting buildings, a clinic, and more. Eventually they want things like dental care (an especially hard problem; it’s relatively expensive but dental problems unheeded turn into medical problems quickly). You can give, you can encourage your company to give. DevOpsDays Austin made spare money from sponsors, so we were able to put $25,000 into sponsoring one of the homes in their next phase.
You can help by volunteering. Persons or groups can email them and get set up to come help! Get your church or other organization involved. They’ve had over 100 Eagle Scouts do their projects out there.
You can help by participating in your local government. They had a long battle to be able to start the village and had to locate outside the City of Austin because of the never-ending NIMBY-ism of residents not wanting “those people” anywhere near them. Advocate for compassion and the homeless in your city council and other venues.
You can help even by just going there, using the businesses, interacting with the residents to weave them into the fabric of Austin. Go on a tour to see what they’re doing out there. Bring your kids! We all had a great and deeply moving family outing in our visit to the Village.