Homelessness

Tiny Homes for Austin's Homeless

Texan Good Samaritans built a village for those in need—no public funding necessary.

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Charlie Click was homeless and living in his car in Austin, Texas, when a stranger in a white truck offered him a sandwich and a fresh pair of socks. When he was in his late 50s, Click had lost his home and most of his possessions after a yearslong spiral that included four prison terms and two cancer diagnoses. The ordeal had left Click alone and dependent on pills and alcohol to cope, but the stranger's kindness started a chain of events that would reverse the course of his life.

The Good Samaritan had been dispatched by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a faith-based charity that delivers food to needy Austin residents. The organization had also constructed a village nearby for homeless people. Urged on by the socks-and-food-delivering stranger, Click applied for residency and was accepted. He drove the vehicle where he had been sleeping to Community First! Village, a neighborhood with neat rows of micro-homes and R.V.s situated on the outskirts of town, northeast of central Austin. Freshly paved roads and tree-covered walking paths passed by wooden porch swings, a community center, and gardens bursting with produce. There was a barbershop, an art studio, a chapel, and an outdoor movie theater. Click moved into a single-room cottage with canvas walls, essentially a glorified tent—"the cheapest thing going," he says—and found work on-site. After years of wandering, he was home.

"I'm in a place where I can not only be secure, but I can be secure until I die," Click recalls thinking. "I can't describe when that feeling hit me—'wow, I don't have to go anywhere.'"

Set on a 51-acre parcel of land eight miles from the Texas State Capitol, Community First! Village opened its doors in late 2015 and has become one of the nation's most renowned private programs for alleviating homelessness. The property houses more than 180 formerly homeless people in a tightknit neighborhood. Each residence has a porch facing a public space that encourages interaction with neighbors, a crucial design feature for a vulnerable population recovering from years of isolation.

Monthly rents range from $225 for a micro-home to $430 for a family-sized R.V. The streets have names like "Peaceful Path," "Goodness Way," and "Grace & Mercy Trail." Residents support themselves financially by working in maintenance, cleaning, landscaping, gardening, animal husbandry, auto mechanics, woodworking, blacksmithing, and hospitality for visitors who rent some of the tiny homes through Airbnb. To keep rents down, the least expensive units come without bathrooms or kitchens, so residents use shared bathhouses and open-air cooking pavilions that are dispersed less than a minute's walk from each doorstep. Founder Alan Graham calls it "an R.V. park on steroids."

Graham, a 63-year-old former real estate developer, co-founded Mobile Loaves & Fishes with friends from his church in 1998. The ministry began as the truck delivery program and branched out into housing years later. The secret to the village's success, he says, is providing more than a roof and a bed. It's a matter of absorbing homeless people into a community where they can find support, mentors, friendships, and reliable paid work.

A "housing first" philosophy of homeless care doesn't go far enough to fix the problem, Graham says. "Housing will never solve homelessness. But community will."

To encourage a sense of community, public spaces abound: The Alamo Drafthouse sponsored a 500-seat outdoor amphitheater where movies are projected from an Airstream trailer. Residents tend organic gardens and harvest eggs from chickens. Volunteer groups from Austin serve meals regularly at long, covered communal tables. Community members have access to a health clinic, counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and hospice care. An on-site columbarium with ashes of deceased neighbors serves as a reminder that they are welcome to stay for life. Around 50 volunteers who have never been homeless, referred to as "missional" residents, live in the community full time and provide support to vulnerable residents struggling with the transition to permanent housing. They lead Bible studies, host cookouts, and pay regular visits to sick or isolated neighbors.

"We call our community a 250-bedroom, $18 million mansion," Graham says. "We all live in the same house. Your bedroom happens to be your 200 square feet over there."

Graham lives on site with his wife in a 399-square-foot tiny house. He wears the same uniform almost every day: a long-sleeved Columbia fisherman's button-down with the Mobile Loaves & Fishes logo above one breast pocket and the word Goodness over the other. A silver crucifix hangs prominently over his chest. He wears glasses and a Papa Hemingway–style white beard across his face, which is almost always shielded—indoors and out—beneath a ball cap that also bears the group's emblem.

A native of southeast Texas, Graham speaks with a kindly drawl. He's devoutly Catholic but cusses when it's necessary and exudes a calming air of approachability. Despite a former life as a developer in one of America's hottest real estate markets, he has slept outside on Austin's streets more than 250 times to gain a better understanding of the homeless plight.

From Charity Food Truck to Community Village

In the late 1990s, Graham and four parishioners from St. John Neumann Catholic Church bought a used pickup truck from which to pass out meals and supplies to homeless people. They faced a steep learning curve. All of the founders were white and wealthy; they knew little about the lives of the people they were trying to serve. "We were clueless," Graham wrote in Welcome Homeless, a memoir about his life.

The group needed someone who knew what it was like to live on the streets without family, food, and hope. They found their man in Houston Flake, a homeless and illiterate man who took Graham into an urban forest in South Austin—a wooded green space where many of the city's homeless choose to live, a community of cardboard box shelters and tents. "I was a traveler in a foreign land," Graham wrote in his book. Flake introduced Graham to a woman named Marge, a former junkie who had spent time in prison and now lived in the woods. After Flake wrapped her in a bear hug and kissed her, Graham felt reluctant to even shake her hand. "Where had that hand been?" he recalled wondering.

If he really wanted to help homeless people, Graham realized, he would need to be willing to touch them.

It wasn't long after the launch of the charity food truck that Austin's homeless people began to recognize it on the streets. The ministry expanded into a full-time nonprofit, which today dispatches 12 pickup trucks that roam Austin's streets 365 days a year. Since 1998, the trucks have served more than 5.5 million meals. As he built relationships with the homeless people who visited the truck, Graham also began raising money to shelter them in R.V.s throughout the city.

Over time, Graham developed an understanding of his homeless neighbors' needs. Even well-intentioned public efforts to provide housing and shelter, he concluded, were systematically ill-equipped to deal with the deep personal challenges that lead to chronic homelessness.

"Government cannot mitigate this problem," says Graham, who describes his political views as "conservative, but probably more libertarian." Americans, he says, "are abdicating this responsibility to city hall, the state government, Washington, D.C. That is unfair. They don't have the money, they don't have the ability, they don't have the understanding of why this is happening. Government housing is a transaction. The government builds or supports the creation of housing, but there's no community involved in the life of those developments."

Homelessness Rising

Today, Austin is a boomtown, with well-funded tech companies clamoring to plant their flags there. Drawn by Austin's warm weather, a thriving music scene, and the state's lack of personal income tax, well-paid college graduates and families have poured into the area. Festivals like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest draw thousands of visitors each year, marking the city as a cultural hub. For three years in a row, U.S. News & World Report has named Austin the best place in America to live.

The rapid growth and popularity, however, have drastically increased the cost of living. The Austin Board of Realtors reported that the city's median home price reached $410,000 in July, compared to the national median price of $280,800. Despite recent efforts to ease building restrictions, Austin's zoning rules limit high-density housing and restrict building heights in some areas of the city, which reduces the number of units available and, naturally, drives up the cost of living.

From 2018 to 2019, Austin's homeless population rose from 2,147 to 2,255—a 5 percent increase—according to an annual count conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, an Austin-based nonprofit. Nationwide data collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development show a 2 percent increase in homelessness over a similar time period.

Lawmakers in Austin have taken notice. In August, the city appointed a "homelessness czar" to oversee programs and initiatives to reduce the number of people sleeping on the streets. In June, after hours of debate at city hall, the City Council voted to overturn a law banning urban camping, making it legal for people to pitch tents in most public areas as long as they don't block traffic or cause a hazard.

Locals who oppose the new rule fear it could leave Austin looking like San Francisco, whose highly visible homeless population has surged by 30 percent in the last two years. "We have to act decisively and deliberately and in a big way now," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said after a July trip to West Coast cities facing the worst of the homelessness crisis. "Because if we don't, this is a challenge that will spiral out of control."

NIMBY Uproar

Years before, Graham saw this coming. While the mobile food truck served an important role in alleviating the symptoms of homelessness, it could go only so far to address its root causes. He had an idea: Instead of just providing food and shelter, what if he could build an entire neighborhood for people who were chronically homeless? More than a house for one person or family; a community for hundreds, together.

After decades working in Austin real estate—negotiating deals, securing permits, navigating the city's zoning rules, and gaining approval from the right bureaucrats—Graham knew the system well and had relationships with Austin power brokers. Building an R.V. park would be nothing compared to the projects he had already seen through hundreds of times. How hard could it be?

In 2006, Graham drew up a detailed plan for a community that he intended to build on undeveloped land owned by the city. The first stages of planning showed promise. He presented the idea to Austin's then-mayor, Will Wynn, who was sympathetic and supportive—his own grandfather had been a homeless alcoholic. Graham had another powerful champion in Mike Martinez, a City Council member, who helped him find 17 acres in East Austin for the first phase of building. In spring 2008, the Council voted unanimously to grant Graham's nonprofit a long-term lease.

Graham's excitement at the project's rapid momentum lasted only until the first neighborhood meeting that summer, where he presented the idea to the public. It was a disaster. More than 50 neighborhood residents came to stop the plan.

The Austin Chronicle reported that Graham and his allies were "under siege." Before the meeting began, a man angrily confronted Graham, and when Martinez tried to step in, the man called him a "filthy pig." Graham says he watched another person spit on Martinez.

"It just flat turned into Armageddon," Graham says. "It was awful. The police were called."

A long line of speakers rolled out the typical NIMBY ("not in my backyard") tropes, warning that Graham's project would bring in drug addicts, rapists, and murderers—or, worse, lower property values. People attacked Graham personally, unveiling tax documents with his family's home address.

"The comments were vicious," Graham says. "It's NIMBYism at its highest level. It's an infection and an indictment on our culture."

At the meeting, some asked why Graham wasn't building the mobile-home park next to his house in Westlake, one of the city's wealthiest enclaves. (At the time, Graham and his wife were using their spare bedrooms to shelter homeless people until the R.V. park could be built.) At least one person affiliated with Graham's project acknowledged that this critique hit home.

"I don't know if I would want a homeless community in my neighborhood, I really don't," Bruce Agness, a member of the Community First board who also lives in Westlake, says. "I get that, even though I co-founded this thing."

At the end of the meeting, the neighborhood voted unanimously, 52–0, in opposition.

The intensity of the meeting spooked Martinez, whose seat on the City Council could have been jeopardized if he didn't change course. He called a press conference the following day and announced that the project would be postponed.

Graham and his team were deflated by the response. The exhausting process convinced Graham that he could not work within the city government apparatus if he wanted to succeed. Austin had too many regulations, too many rules, too many restrictions, and too many NIMBYs. "I think government ought to get out of our way and let the people do what we can do," Graham says. But in order for the government to get out of his way, Graham needed to get out of the government's way. And he found a clause in Texas land law that would allow him to do just that.

Outside City Limits

Having exhausted his political capital and most options for viable land within Austin's city limits, Graham determined that he could no longer wait on the city's political process. Four years had passed since he had the idea for a mobile home park, and, having been run out of every neighborhood where he proposed a site, he had little to show for his work. He devised a plan to build in a place where city council members and zealous NIMBYs couldn't stop him.

Unlike most urban areas, unincorporated Texas land isn't bound by strict zoning rules. The region surrounding Austin is a frontier-like place when it comes to architectural experimentation, and if Graham could find a tract of land beyond city limits, he could do virtually whatever he wished.

"When that revelation hit me, it was 'Katie, bar the door,'" Graham says. "We're gonna get this done, and there's nothing that NIMBYs can do to stop us."

With a private blessing from Lee Leffingwell, the new mayor, Graham found and raised money to buy an available tract less than 10 miles from downtown. Austin transitions from urban to rural quickly, allowing access to a vast homeless population that's concentrated downtown. When Graham and his team visited, they found "a crummy, crap-filled piece of land" full of weeds and three tons of trash and debris. Over several weeks, volunteer crews hauled away more than a thousand used tires and filled 20 dumpster trucks with garbage. They even discovered two stolen cars among the weeds.

"It was just what we needed," Graham recalls. They broke ground and started building. The first residents moved into their tiny homes in 2015. Graham's dream had become reality.

Not Lonely Anymore

A day in the village is not unlike any small neighborhood. But here, residents live much of their lives in the open. On any given afternoon, the air fills with noise of conversations from porch to porch, the occasional clang from the blacksmith workshop, or the grind of a power tool in the community garage. When you're outside, it's almost impossible to be alone—and that's the point. Unlike in modern suburbs, where so much of life is hidden behind closed doors and privacy fences, problems in this neighborhood never remain hidden for long, which allows the community to respond quickly.

"Most people in the United States today live in these hermetically sealed single-family sarcophaguses that we call the American dream, in these isolated subdivisions," Graham notes. "You don't know your neighbors. You don't know if they're battling addictions. You don't know if they're wanting to put a shotgun in their mouth and pull the trigger with their big toe. In our community, we know everything."

Life in the village, Graham says, is "absolutely peaceful, with a side salad of tension."

No one claims that Community First! is a utopia. Disputes do break out. One of Graham's own neighbors tried to sue him twice—once for $20 and the other time for $5—over small tenant issues that were later settled privately. (Graham and the man today remain neighbors and friends.)

"Every now and then there's a fight," Graham says. "People yelling and screaming at each other sometimes. Some of that is fueled by mental health issues going back to traumatic childhood backgrounds." Community leaders work with offenders by practicing restorative justice, an approach to conflict resolution that involves reconciliation and repairing the harm caused, but they call the police when needed.

Since the first residents moved in, crimes have occurred, but mostly of the petty variety: a stolen debit card here, a missing bicycle there. There have been no reports of rape, murder, or serious violence, Graham says. Guns are not allowed. When one resident held up a neighbor with a knife, he was caught, charged, and convicted. He did not return.

In cases of attempted crime on the property, it's almost impossible to get away with anything here anyway: Security cameras record the property's open areas, and life is so public that few misdeeds go unnoticed.

Applicants are screened before being accepted for residency, with prerequisites that they have been homeless for at least a year in the Austin area and that they undergo a background check. A history of substance abuse does not disqualify someone, nor does a criminal record like Click's. But people convicted of murder, kidnapping, or sex-related crimes are not admitted. Those who continue to struggle with addiction are provided with access to rehab options, counseling, support groups, and relationships with missional residents to help them along.

Faith was a driving force in the founding and remains a sustaining one within the community, although participation in services is not required for residents. Most of the missional residents come from Christian backgrounds, and there's a chapel on site for worship and contemplative prayer. Church groups visit and volunteer time or serve meals.

"We're driven by God," says Agness, the board member. "A lot of people gloss over that."

For some residents, the transition from a life on the streets to a warm bed is difficult. "It takes some people three or four or five months to get used to having a place to go to where they can close the door and not worry about somebody coming in and taking their belongings," Agness says. "For some people, it takes two or three months before they'll sleep on the bed. They sleep on the floor."

Residents who have lived for years in isolation also can take time growing accustomed to being in close proximity to others. Click, for instance, holed himself up for months before beginning to engage with his neighbors. Others are known to go out of their way to avoid seeing other residents en route to meals or the bathhouses. 

"Some guys are such introverts that they get off the bus, walk along the property line, jump the fence, and go into their tiny house. They don't want to see anybody," says Nancy Miller, a missional resident who has lived in the village since 2015. "And that's cool. They don't have to be like us and want to hang out with everybody."

With homelessness rates increasing, the village is growing. Construction crews broke ground in October 2018 to expand the enterprise, bringing the population to about 500 people, with 20 percent of the units for missional residents. Once everyone is moved in, which the organization expects will occur around three years from now, the ministry will house one-fourth of Austin's chronically homeless population, defined as those without a home for more than a year.

About 15,000 people volunteer at Community First! every year. The organization hosts a quarterly symposium to share strategies for replicating the village's success that draws representatives from local governments and nonprofits across the nation. Mobile Loaves & Fishes has helped spawn food truck ministries in other cities around the country, including New Orleans, Nashville, and San Antonio.

In 2019, Click's life took another turn for the better. He met a woman, Tracy, who also lives in the Community First! Village. They had a May wedding in the neighborhood's Unity Hall, and he traded his bachelor's canvas home for a family-sized place up the hill, on Grace & Mercy Trail.