Tiny homes, organic gardens, an outdoor theater, walking trails, study areas, worship places, an inn – these are just some of the highlights of Community First! Village in Austin, Texas.
But they’re not found in upscale neighborhood with million-dollar listings or emerging arts district. Instead, they’re part of phase one of a massive undertaking to end Austin’s homelessness, helmed by father of five Alan Graham.
More than 20 years ago, Alan Graham was a recognizable figure in the real estate industry as the founder of the Lynxs Group and Trilogy Development. However, Graham saw the growing need in Austin’s homeless community and was called to act. In 1998, he founded Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF), a social outreach ministry that initially distributed food and clothing from the back of a green minivan. Graham is the first to admit that the system wasn’t perfect.
But when Houston Flake joined the team, it was a game changer – Flake had experienced homelessness firsthand. Since then, MLF has distributed more than 5.5 million meals, and the model has been replicated across the country.
Although feeding those in need definitely answered the call to “love thy neighbor,” Graham saw the need for much more. After all, for someone struggling with homelessness, a warm meal may be comforting, but it doesn’t solve the root of the problem: a need for a stable and safe home.
Graham started thinking of the bigger picture and what he could bring to it. The answer was simple: he had a stellar real estate career, and the men and women he met and worked with every day needed a home and a community. And so, in 2005 the idea for Community First! Village was born.
Today, phase one is complete. It’s home to more than 200 formerly homeless men and women, many of whom have battled chronic homelessness and addiction. But “The True Heart of Austin,” as the neighborhood’s been dubbed, is not just neat rows of tiny houses and RV homes. It’s truly a community, where formerly homeless people can find safety to heal, to rest, and place to call home.
Residents tend organic kitchen gardens to supply the community with fresh produce. There’s a blacksmith and woodworking shop, as well as a car garage where members of the community work. There’s an art studio, community kitchens, study spaces, and a medical facility. The community bed and breakfast welcomes guests to some of the quirkiest lodgings in Austin. There are walking trails, a memorial garden, and spaces for prayer and worship.
But snowy-haired Alan Graham is far from done. Community First! Village started phase two less than a year ago. When complete, the entire community will house more than 500 people -– close to half of Austin’s chronically homeless population. It will also include a community clinic, outdoor event space, additional community work spaces, and gardens.
Meanwhile, Graham is not only involved in the ambitious second phase of the housing development, but also runs Gospel con Carne, a podcast exploring faith and community with a Tex-Mex twist. And the initial project that started Graham’s ministry is still running – Mobile Loaves & Fishes still serves lunch and dinner for free on the streets of Austin, 7 days a week, year-round.