You don’t fix homelessness by giving a person a house, says Alan Graham. You end chronic homelessness by giving people community. By connecting human to human and heart to heart, and thus transforming stereotypes through new relationships.
“[I hope] there will come a time when the entire United States will look at Austin, Texas, as the ones who finally figured out how to mitigate this pandemic that we call homelessness,” he says.
Graham has worked with the unhoused people of Austin, Texas for almost a quarter of a century, and that work was the inspiration for America’s first planned community for the unhoused – Community First! Village. And if there was a Fortune 500 of the happiest people on the planet, he says, he’d be number one.
It has been a personal journey from life as a successful real estate developer, to a vision of Christian love in practice that began with a 1996 retreat called Christ Renews His Parish. At a subsequent retreat, he met a formerly homeless man, Houston Flake, who inspired the idea for Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Houston taught him the secret of working with people on the street – as brothers and sisters whose names and stories he knew – the greatest gift he has ever received, Graham says.
And his vision is of others in the community making the same connections, through service to the homeless. It took time for the vision of the village to materialize. It began with a food truck.
In 1998, after a friend told him that some churches in Corpus Christi were pooling their resources to take food to people on the street, the image of a catering truck came into his mind and wouldn’t go away. They fundraised $25,000, bought their first Mobile Loaves and Fishes truck, and made their first run in April 1999. (They now have 18 trucks and about 13,000 volunteers, and have served about five million meals over 20 years.)
They didn’t know much about homelessness or its causes, then, he says. “What we did know is that God called us to feed our homeless neighbours living on the street. So that’s what we did.”
There weren’t any preplanned routes. They hit parks, street corners, shelters, housing projects, weekly-rate motels, campsites and fed people along the way. “When we pull up, we’ll ask, “What would you like, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich or a ham-and-cheese sandwich? What kind of chips?” The ability to choose, say, between plain potato chips and Doritos is pretty powerful.”
It made all the difference in the world when there was no counter between the server and the receiver – both were on the same side, he says. He occasionally spent nights on the street, and realized two things. Firstly, the people who live on the street are among the hardest working Americans. And secondly, people are homeless not just because they lack a home – they are homeless because there has been a profound catastrophic loss of family.
Truly “helping our friends” meant creating a new kind of community, he says – one built for the despised, the outcast, the hopeless and the abandoned. “A place they could call home.”
Mobile Loaves and Fishes, 2020 Video Tour
“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,” said a 2018 article in the Austin Chronicle. “Writing off those with mental illness or addictions or disabilities, those who were in prison, those without education 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.”
It’s been a journey with many steps along the way. It began with Graham finding a travel trailer home for one man, and then it grew. In 2004, the group bought four trailers which they parked in an existing mobile home park as homes for five unhoused men. That led to the vision of a park with 100 recreational vehicles and 50 small cottages that would serve the chronically homeless – individuals with disabling conditions who have been homeless for more than one year or people who have been homeless at least four times in three years. But neighbours objected in 2008 when Graham asked the city of Austin for a long term lease on a 17-acre campsite, and it took him four more years to find the 51-acre site on which the Community First! Village now sits, just outside the Austin city limits.
The Genesis Garden was created during the first phase and it’s where neighbors cultivate produce for the village farmers’ market, where it is distributed free. The village has also developed permaculture gardens, chicken coops, and pasture land for goats.
As the village has grown, its enterprise opportunities have as well. There is now a forge, woodshop, auto shop, cinema, and art studio, where neighbors can use skills they already have or learn new ones to secure new sources of income. Products are sold in the community market, where both visitors and neighbors shop. There is even a group of small homes that can be rented by visitors, near the outdoor cinema.
The village currently houses 325 formerly homeless neighbours, says Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and in 2021, it paid out more than $1.2 milion to residents in dignified income through its Community Works and other microenterprises. And as the village expands into phases 3 and 4, another 1,400 microhomes will be added over the next few years.
“It’s changing the model for how we engage our homeless neighbours and feed the relational emptiness they’ve experienced for so long,” he says.
“What has been simply amazing,” he says, “is how so many people have rallied around this movement. People from all walks of life have poured in their time, talent and treasure to make the Community First vision a reality. And what we’ve built together is truly extraordinary.”
“Goodness is happening. Together, we are building hope.”
The American Dream, Arriving on Wheels. New York Times, Jul. 3, 2005.
How to fight against homelessness. Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Catholic-link.org on You Tube
Mobile Loaves and Fishes – Building Hope. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, You Tube
Community First! Village – A New Movement. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, YouTube
1,400 new micro-homes coming to Community First! Village for chronically homeless in Austin. KXAN, Austin, Apr. 14, 2021
A Tiny Home Village Gets a Big Helping Hand. Yes magazine, Oct. 10, 2022