Feature Article: Community First

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Community First
Finding Home Again

by Sofia Sokolove
photographs by Inti St. Clair

On the porch of a canvas-sided cottage flanked by trees sit two rocking chairs and a door mat embellished with the word “HOME.” Inside, a new but rustic-looking bed and cushy red armchair overlook a bountiful community garden. The space looks like something you might find at Liz Lambert’s glamping paradise El Cosmico, in Marfa. Yet this unique, master planned 27-acre community in far East Austin is actually a community built for the formerly and chronically homeless. “I would live here!” a visitor gushed as she snapped pictures of the cottage’s interior during a recent tour.

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Her reaction is what the team behind Community First! calls a bell-ringing moment. Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile Loaves & Fishes (the group behind Community First!) explained, “We hear that all the time. People come out here and say exactly what that woman just said.” To Aitchison and his team, it’s confirmation that they’ve achieved their goals of creating a place that gives dignity and support to those who have often gone a lifetime without.

Community First
Chickens, dairy goats, rabbits and honey bees - plus a geodesic dome featuring citrus, avocado and an aquaponic system are all part of Community First!'s gardening program.

The community includes roughly 120 micro-homes, built from 11 different designs. All of them feature large porches and are placed at angles to face each other, meant to encourage community and giving the village a whimsical, almost Dr. Seuss vibe. The homes, which come fully furnished (many were decorated by Austin interior designers donating their time) are essentially bedrooms with electricity, a crockpot, a microwave and a refrigerator. Residents share laundry, bathroom facilities and state-of-the-art community kitchens. Some of the homes have screened-in porches; others have large upstairs decks. “We’re really curious to see what happens when we open up this side of the property and people get to pick which place they want,” explained Aitchison. “Are they going to choose the party home? Are they going to choose the smaller ones off to the side? Are they going to try to choose the home that looks like a miniature mansion? It’s all up to them. It’s all about empowering them from when they first step on the property to make that decision.”

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The resources don’t stop at giving residents a home: The property — or the “$14.5 million, 250 bedroom mansion,” as Aitchison calls it — also includes three acres of gardens, a medical clinic, sanctuary and bodega, among other amenities. And near the entrance to the property sits the Alamo Drafthouse Community Cinema, a circular outdoor amphitheater that can seat 500. It’s the first sign that this isn’t just a place for housing the homeless: It’s a community, and one that its founders are hoping will become an active part of Austinites’ lives. To do that, the community has built in different ways to bring people out. The community theater, which hosts movie nights for both residents and neighbors of the East Austin village, is one of those ways. “If in a crowd of 300 people, one person in that crowd says ‘How can I get more involved out here?’ we’ve moved people beyond the traffic light scenario of helping the homeless,” Aitchison explained.

Residents and their East Austin neighbors came together at a recent community movie night to socialize and catch a movie at The Alamo Drafthouse Community Cinema.

And there are plenty of ways to get involved, from volunteering at “Genesis Gardens” to helping out at special events like community dinners and movie nights, to spending a weekend in an hip-looking RV or micro-home as part of the bed and breakfast mission program. “A lot of people think to do missions you have to go to Guatemala, Africa…the fact is there’s a large need here in our own backyard,” explained Aitchison. “We’re making it possible for people to make Austin their mission field.”

Community First

On a recent visit, Aitchison pointed out the street signs. We were standing at the intersection of Goodness Way and Peaceful Path while behind us, a Cap Metro bus eased to a stop (the bus runs every hour) and construction equipment beeped in reverse. Activity in the village buzzed with the energy that comes when something is very close to being complete. At our visit in May, 50 residents had moved in. By the end of 2016, 125 to 175 residents are expected to be living at the village. And by mid-2017, Community First! projects to be at capacity, with 250 formerly homeless and missional residents.

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Bonnie, a formerly homeless resident, moved into the village in December.

“Everything we do involves the element of healing and restoring one’s dignity and helping them to feel a sense of community,” Aitchison said. That mission extends well beyond the street names. On the Saturday we visited, a farm stand was set up featuring free kale, eggs and radishes, fresh from the three-acre Genesis Gardens. The property also has its own dairy goats, chickens, rabbits and even a colony of honeybees. We visited with Bonnie, a formerly homeless armed services veteran who moved into an RV at the village in December. She was sitting in the shade of the farm stand, chatting with folks as they passed by. “I’m claiming ambassador this week,” she joked. “I claim ambassador quite often.”

“This place is allowing you to find your way back and find things you forgot you were even interested in.”

A blind and diabetic amputee, Bonnie is proud of the fact that she’s lost 30 pounds since moving into Community First!, something that can at least partially be credited to the straight-from-the-ground produce she was touting at the farm stand. She’s thrilled to have found a community, and a place to rediscover some of the things she loves. “It’s something different every day…I’m looking forward to throwing mud at the art studio,” she said with a grin. And there’s not just an art studio — there’s a blacksmith workshop, and an art gallery for micro-enterprise opportunities. “One of the biggest things about being homeless,” said Bonnie, “is the fact that you give up on yourself. This place is allowing you to find your way back and find things you forgot you were even interested in.” And it’s allowing Bonnie and other residents to once again find a community. “I know my neighbors…I hadn’t known my neighbors in years,” she said.

As innovative and trendy as the micro-homes are, Mobile Loaves & Fishes founder and CEO Alan Graham likes to stress that it’s not just about them. “We’re not necessarily in the business of providing housing,” Graham explained, sitting across from the chicken coops and wearing his signature baseball cap. “We’re in the business of connecting human beings.”

If you’d like to volunteer, visit mlf.org/volunteer-community-first.


Community First! provides more than just homes. The village also includes:

GENESIS GARDENS

A 3-acre community garden featuring fruit- and nut-bearing trees and vegetables. Produce from the gardens is available for free to residents at the weekly farm stand.

GROCERY STORE

Sponsored by HEB, this bodega is also a place for residents to sell their work from the forgery workshop and art studios.

ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE COMMUNITY CINEMA
An outdoor theater that can seat 500 meant to serve as a focal point for weekend gatherings between residents and neighbors.

HEALTH CLINIC
The facility provides physical and mental health screenings and support services, including hospice and respite care.

CAP METRO BUS STOP
The bus runs every hour, allowing residents to commute into Austin for work or pleasure.


Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2016