Austin, Texas is known for many things – beautiful parks, a thriving tech industry, bustling nightlife, several universities, and of course the live music. It is a fairly forward-thinking and green city, in the center of what’s typically known as a conservative state. Austin has been rated as one of the top 10 green cities by the Mother Nature Network and is home to some very green companies, such as Whole Foods.
What you might not know is that there are about 6000 homeless people living on the streets of Austin.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF), a social outreach ministry headed by Alan Graham, has spent the last 10 years working with people, organizations and businesses throughout Austin to create affordable housing in this growing Central Texas city, where most homes are over-valued and low-income housing is difficult to find. After much collaboration and work, in August 2014 the organization launched what it calls Community First! – a 27 acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas. The community offers a mix of housing, including RV lots, micro-homes and canvas-sided cottages.
In addition to offering affordable rent – between $180 to $210 per month depending on the type of dwelling rented – what makes this project an interesting model is the community that MLF created for its residents. On the property you will find amenities that create something similar to a living co-operative, helping residents learn food independence, taking care of the ones in need, sharing tools and resources, and thus lowering everyone’s cost of living. Here’s an idea of what Community First! offers:
- A community garden featuring fruit and nut bearing trees and vegetables
- A chicken operation, bee hives producing fresh honey and an aquaponics fish operation
- A workshop with tool bank and art gallery for micro-enterprise opportunities
- A medical facility for physical and mental health screenings and support services including hospice and respite care
Although MLF has plenty of work to finalize some of the facilities, the large community garden has been producing a wide variety of vegetables, eggs and honey for quite some time. The food has been distributed by the MLF food truck, which navigates the streets of Austin offering daily meals service. As more residents move into their new housing, they will have an opportunity to work in the gardens and learn how to grow their own food.
In addition to resident facilities, MLF created an outdoor theater and bed and breakfast featuring vintage Airstreams and 26-food diameter tipis. Alan Graham envisions that the facilities can be rented out, especially since Austin hosts many large events such as SXSW and ACL Fest. This will create income to put back into the community and will also create jobs for residents.
Here’s a first-hand look at the Community First! project:
Homelessness continues to be a problem faced by many in the US as poverty and inequity soar. TheNational Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2011, the official poverty rate was 15.0%, meaning that 46.2 million people were in poverty, which is closely linked to homelessness. TheNational Center on Family Homelessness reported that in 2013, approximately 2.5 million children found themselves without a roof over their heads or place to call home.
For a country with some of the most modern amenities and technologies known to man, this seems incomprehensible. Yet, due to lack of affordable housing, limited housing assistance programs, and lack of employment opportunities, once you’re at the poverty level, it is very difficult to escape it. The government’s attitude towards the homeless is appalling, as noted in the recent arrests of a 90-year old man for feeding the homeless, and the problem is worsening as innovation in addressing the changing housing, societal and economic climate is lacking. At the same time, it appears that there’s an unlimited supply of money to militarize local police forces and wage permanent global war.
In addition to climbing poverty rates, there are many other reasons for chronic homelessness: serving in war, loss of family, mental illness, domestic violence, health problems, and substance abuse. Yet, it is often impossible to address these problems if a homeless person cannot find work and afford medical or domestic assistance because they must first have a home, with an address for the work applications and a space where they can clean up.
We must look to innovative projects that address chronic homelessness, such as Community First!, and then take action – be it you create, participate in, support or fund organizations that are taking actual steps towards solve basic fundamental problems in our society.