AUSTIN – Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a social outreach ministry, has started to build their Community First! Village project of sustainable housing for the chronically homeless in east Austin, after 10 years of planning and setbacks.
“We are focused on people who have been chronically homeless for an extended period of time,” Nate Schlueter, Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community Relations Director, said. “Our goal is to lift about 250 people off the street, out of the 1,200 homeless found in Austin.”
Community First! Village will offer to its residents 5th wheel RVs, micro-homes, and canvas-sided cottages with rents ranging from $120 to $400. The project also enforces employment opportunities through a micro-enterprise program, in order to encourage its residents to earn between $500 and $800 per month.
Among these micro-economic businesses are the Ice Cream Carts, which are ice-cream bike vending opportunities, and Craft Shop and Art, which consists of selling their own handcrafting and artwork.
Events such as the Pecan Street Festival or the Farmer’s Market will allow them to sell crops from their ongoing gardening activities.
“Ideally, we want to provide opportunities for them to use their own talents and skills and gain 100% of the profit, hopefully to be able to pay their rent by earning a dignified income,” Perri Verdino, MLF Communications Coordinator, said.
According to Verdino, the 27-acre property is constructing amenities that include a medical facility, a chapel, and a community garden, all of which contribute to a holistic approach and a sense of community and support.
Alan Graham, president of MLF, introduced the idea of Community First! Village after starting to serve sandwiches in Central Texas. After learning more about the people on the streets, MLF was able to provide around 16 food trucks to serve the homeless.
However, a sense of community and a firm support system was still necessary, according to Sarah Boettcher, MLF Volunteer Coordinator.
“The mobile food truck ministry realized that people needed more opportunities and give them something beyond a sandwich. MLF implemented RVs around the city for transitional housing, but the ministry became more oriented to empower homeless communities. The 47 residents living in our RVs will hopefully transition to our village when it is ready,” Boettcher said.
However, the project has suffered setbacks that kept pushing construction plans for over 9 years. Neighbor complaints and legal processes held the project back because they could not find the right property to develop their community.
“People from surrounding areas of other properties did not understand the master plan community. They thought of the building as just another homeless shelter,” Schlueter said.
The 27-acre property east of the US Highway 183 gave an opportunity for MLF to own something outside the city limits with no rejection of their building permits. Approved by the City Council and Travis County Commissioners, they were able to avoid issues with their long-term property.
After talking to neighbors through community meetings, people understood that their project aimed for permanent rather than transitional housing, according to Verdino.
Community First! Village has not been funded by federal state funding, but rather by private individuals and businesses. They depend primarily on individual donations, and several businesses around Austin have helped to develop the infrastructure. The Alamo Drafthouse, for example, has already designed an outdoor theatre for the community.
“Everything depends on lots of relationship building. Letting people know our story and letting people volunteer,” Verdino said. “Most people have a family, a group of friends, or a support system to lean on. Most of our soon-to-be residents don’t have family left, or they are completely estranged from them. When people understand, they want to help.”
The project has attracted over 3,000 volunteers, and housing units have not even been built. The open volunteer program is developing the 3-acre farms and gardens within the infrastructure.
So far, MLF has raised over $7 million in order to secure the property and start developing the infrastructure and main utilities. They still need $5 million for housing units.
“Right now, we are concentrating on doing construction, building roads, and bringing utilities such as water,” Schlueter, MLF Community Relations Director, said. “We are hopeful that we will move our first residents in about seven months. Eighteen months from now, Community First! will probably be 95% occupied.”