Austin’s Utopian Homeless Village Is Becoming A Reality

Austin’s 27-acre Community First Village will eventually house 250 formerly homeless and disabled people. Can they build a real “hobo’s paradise”?

1. Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a social justice ministry, has been planning their new homeless community in on 27 acres in East Austin.

 

The village is still being built right now, but even just the development feels like a sunny mini paradise, hiding right off the road on the east side of Austin, Texas.

2. The new community will feature homes — RVs, tiny cabins, and teepees — for 250 formerly homeless for rent as low as $90.

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Nate Schlueter, the director of the organization’s ROADS Micro-Enterprise program, explained that paying your rent is the first rule of the community. Community First isn’t just a “housing project,” it’s a “homing project,” and central to that is the sense of real ownership the community will have by being financially responsible for their homes. But Mobile Loaves & Fishes will help the community find ways to pay that rent and earn extra money, through employment opportunities both on-site and off and help with applying for disability benefits.

3. Ellis was homeless for six years before January, when he moved into his own RV with the help of the organization. He plans to move the RV to the Community First Village as soon as residents can move in.

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He’s already working on the land, doing gardening and maintenance projects. He explained that when he was homeless, his full-time job was “getting food, staying warm, and staying away from the police.” Now, he works five days a week at the village and on other projects, and around 45 friends attended his housewarming party in January.

4. The community will also home a permaculture food forest and gardens, chickens, goats, rabbits, a woodworking and RV repair workshop, a bed and breakfast, outdoor cooking areas, a pond full of catfish, and an outdoor movie screen for community gatherings.

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Heidi Sloan, the director of the program’s Animal Husbandry Program, says caring for animals helps people learn to be givers. They didn’t want the work of tending to the dozens of chickens on site, to feel like drudgery, so the chicken pen and coop is cheerful, colorful, and bright. The coop was built by a group of women and girls from the National Charity League, who worked with a crew of homeless future residents to paint and personalize the space.

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

 

Sloan’s goal is to make their chicken coop part of Austin’s Funky Chicken Coop Tour.

6. Even the tools at the development site are brightly painted and happy looking.

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

When asked whether the project would be able to sustain enthusiasm years after opening, the Mobile Loaves & Fishes staff remarked that “when you build beautiful environments, people want to be there and it’s sustainable.” One of the goals of the community is to make it an enviably delightful place by any standard, not just “nice for a homeless shelter.” Some of the staff is even planning on living on site, and it’s easy to see the appeal when you’re surrounded by gardens, clucking chickens, and sunny tiny homes.

7. The homes at the village include mobile homes, tiny houses (the frames are shipped from Poland and can supposedly be built in around 8 hours!), and tents.

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

 

This mobile home is decked out as a demonstration. This would house a single homeless person and cost $325, a month. But the program includes ample employment opportunities — for example, there will be fruit trees lining the property and that harvest could be used to make jams and jellies that could be sold at local farmer’s markets.

8. The plan is also for the village to be a gathering place for Austin’s wider community to come together and form relationships with the chronically homeless.

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The group is already having Saturday morning volunteer breakfasts. Their cook, Dennis, recently lived in an apartment, but moved back into a creek bed near the property because he missed his connection to nature. He hopes to move into the village once it is open. He now cooks for a group of volunteers and homeless on the weekends, and sometimes the group invites bands to come out and play as well.

9. The community is already getting involved — there are several Eagle Scout projects on the site including this Thai jar rainwater collection tank.

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

And a giant chessboard! The group hopes to empower volunteers to make real connections with the chronically homeless, who don’t often have friendships outside the homeless community. At the community farm, volunteers will be taught and led by formerly homeless staffers. Recently, one homeless work led a third grade field trip on a tour through the site.

On the other hand, the community itself will be gated and require registration. As Schlueter explained, the homeless are much more vulnerable to violent crime than they are likely to perpetrate it, and he said there was a palatable sense of relief in the community when it was explained that they would be protected at the village.

10. There is also a memorial garden being built on the site to remember members of the community that have died.

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Schlueter explained that while the homeless community is tight-knit on the street, often when someone dies they are denied closure. Families often get involved for the first time in years and the memorial services and grave sites aren’t reachable for homeless friends. This garden will provide a place to mourn and remember.

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

 

Larry Williams was a vibrant and beloved part of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes homeless community. He wanted to be the first resident of the Community First Village, and in his way he was. He passed away in November 2013, but this memorial tribute to him will have a permanent place on the site.

12. The song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” describes a “hobo paradise” where “hens lay soft-boiled eggs” and “the farmers’ trees are full of fruit.”

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

The song also describes streams of whiskey and cigarette trees, but it still feels like an apt metaphor for what Mobile Loaves & Fishes is trying to do. I showed up to the village with a lot of questions — would it be accessible to downtown Austin? Yes, there’s a bus stop nearby and the city is considering moving the stop to the entrance. Would enthusiasm be sustainable? They believe that the combination of community gathering, employment opportunities, and permaculture gardens will make this a place that people want to be for years to come. Will the homeless be happy and want to stay there? It’s true that sometimes the chronically homeless “choose” homelessness despite receiving disability or having enough employment to qualify for low-income housing. However, often the reason they find themselves gravitating back to the streets is due to the closeness to the land and the community they have there. Community First Village is emphasizing those qualities in their development rather than focusing solely on getting a roof over people’s heads.

Most importantly: Could they have dogs? Yes, as long as they aren’t huge.

The village just doesn’t feel like it’s a shelter for tragic people of some other class. It would be an incredibly lovely home for anyone, and many of the community’s principles are ones we could all use more of: living sustainably, and close to nature and animals, and spending time with those you love.

Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

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