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People of the Year 2020: Shelby Blessing & Sarah Satterlee

Homelessness is an ever-present reality in Austin, and according to numbers from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), 2020 marks a decade high. As a leader in serving those who experience chronic homelessness, Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Community First! Village helps its residents find both shelter and community. On a 51-acre master-planned community in East Austin, the village is the first of its kind in the country, and architects Shelby Blessing and Sarah Satterlee are two of the key figures behind its innovative solution.

As staff architect for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Satterlee helps coordinate pro bono services from local firms like Jobe Corral Architects, Michael Hsu and more. Blessing is a senior associate at Page Architects and the previous co-chair of the Design Voice committee for AIA, which facilitates opportunities for design professionals to serve the community. Designed in two phases as part of an ongoing partnership between the nonprofit and AIA, the 130 micro-homes in phase one are complete and phase two is now underway. For Satterlee and Blessing, their passion for giving back and public interest design is what makes the collaboration so powerful.

“Some architects work for community design centers, but I decided to work for a big firm knowing big firms influence the projects that make communities better,” says Blessing. Fresh out of grad school in 2014, she participated in Tiny Victories 1.0, the design competition that led to the layout of the phase one homes. At the time, there was no client; no one lived in Community First! Village yet.

“We were off building homes for the chronically homeless without even talking to the homeless,” Blessing adds. But a post-occupancy study with 20 residents, completed in 2018 through volunteer hours, gave them all the insight they needed to go above and beyond for phase two.

Satterlee, who is from New Orleans and got her degree from Tulane, came to Texas with the goal of “doing research on unconventional housing, specifically for folks that typical housing doesn’t serve,” she says. She lived in the village for three months and was later hired as the community’s staff architect. Now, she and Blessing have implemented those takeaways for an even more resident-focused experience.

“These folks are used to having no choice about things that happen to them,” Satterlee says.

Here, residents get to choose their floor plan. From the survey, Blessing and Satterlee learned that many residents wanted more storage, while others felt the desire for more enclosed, secluded spaces where they could withdraw and engage with the rest of the community by choice. Private outdoor space like screened porches and back porches were also a priority.

“For designers and architects, views and natural light are always a good thing, but for our people, privacy is a big deal, as they have always been on display,” adds Satterlee.

When designing for the chronically homeless, different criteria come to mind, but at the end of the day, it’s about comfort, autonomy, safety, privacy and community.

Phase two, which will be completed by the fall of 2022, will sit on 24 acres and have 310 units on-site. Like phase one, there are communal restrooms and kitchen facilities, plus a clinic, art house and market. The latest planning addition, which they hope will be a place residents can connect after work, is called the Living Room. Featuring a game room and pool table, the addition is a direct solution to the request for more informal hangout areas and will also create room for classes and additional office space for staff.

As Community First! Village continues to scale, Blessing, Satterlee and all of those involved in its planning are excited to develop even more ways to help.

“I think the whole saying is probably apt—home is where the heart is—but they do a good job out here in how they promote community and interpersonal relationships,” a resident shares. “It’s not just a place to live but a community to live in.”

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