Alan Graham’s eyes glimmer whenever he talks about one of his big ideas — and this one might be the biggest of them all.
“I like extraordinary challenges,” he told NationSwell. “I’ve been challenged my whole life.”
Extraordinary is a perfect word to describe the problem he’s devoted his life to solving: homelessness in the United States. For the last 14 years, Graham and his nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF) have worked to build Community First Village, a 27-acre development just outside Austin’s city limits made up of eclectic tiny homes, RVs and tricked-out tents.
There, people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness can sleep without fear for their safety at night, recover from addiction, and find the connections and social support to lift them up for the rest of their lives.
“Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will,” Graham theorizes. “If you really want to understand homelessness, you must understand what home is.”
To Graham, home is a permanent place where someone finds security, builds memories, shares stories and feels like they belong — and Community First invites all of its residents to help build that home for one another.
MLF began its work by serving meals to Austin’s homeless in 1998, but Graham always felt there was more to be done. Then, in 2003, he and his colleagues went on a “street retreat,” spending three nights sleeping outside with their homeless neighbors down by The ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless).
Picking through dumpsters and swapping stories, he began to see common themes emerge around how people ended up there: a divorce, a death in the family, an abusive relationship.
“The single greatest cause of homelessness [is] a profound, catastrophic loss of family,” he said.
So Graham set out to build a community that would go beyond the Housing First model that’s gained prominence in recent years — not just putting roofs over people’s heads, but providing health resources, employment opportunities, and above all else prioritizing social connection.
You’ll find no fences, gates, or even many locked doors at the Village. According to Graham, the very concept of a private, outdoor space hurts the effort to build community.
“If I was the Home Czar of the United States, I would essentially ban backyards,” Graham said. “30% of the square footage of the house [would have] to be your front porch. Everybody would come hang out.”
Meals are cooked in communal outdoor kitchens and shared at the Community Table, a wooden pavilion in the center of the neighborhood. Porches tend to be nearly as large as the homes themselves, and you can’t go more than 15 minutes without a neighbor walking by helping to move a piece of furniture or checking in on the health of your pet.
He sees the Village as an answer not just to the country’s homelessness problem, but to the more universal struggle of human isolation.
“Ever since World War II, we have been building these subdivisions,” he said. “And inside these subdivisions are these hermetically sealed, single-family sarcophaguses that we call the American Dream.” At Community First Village, residents are piloting a new model they hope will spread to other communities for the formerly homeless and beyond.
The MLF team built the Village to address the needs of the most at-risk homeless residents in Austin — single adults with a mental or physical disability who’ve lived on the streets for at least one year.
To live at the Village, residents pay rent of $220–420 depending on which unit they choose. Some receive Disability payments that cover the costs, while others have part-time jobs or other sources of income. For those who need it, the Village offers employment opportunities through its Community Works program. Residents who participate in the program earn $500–2,000 per month to do work that ranges from auto detailing to blacksmithing to creating and selling original artwork. There’s also basic grounds maintenance and upkeep, gardening and even selling concessions at the outdoor movie theater on site.
Some of the people living outside near The ARCH told us they were skeptical of a homelessness service that required residents to pay rent while they were still struggling to get back on their feet. A man named Tayvon said, “A lot of people think it’s gonna be free, then they go down there and…” he shook his head, trailing off. “It’s bullshit.”
But Graham and other Village residents believe the responsibility of earning an income and contributing to the community is a critical part of its success.
“I want to not be here just to be here,” said Village resident John Rogers. “I want to become a part of it, giving back, helping people.” Rogers has become known as the “Popsicle Man,” always there to greet people with a cold treat on a hot day.
The Village offers a promising model for mitigating homelessness nationwide — if similar communities can find the funding and local buy-in. Graham and his team tried for years to launch the Village closer to the heart of Austin, but faced extreme pushback from residents citing “not in my backyard” concerns.
In the middle of negotiations with the city, Graham said, “I went to a neighborhood meeting that imploded into our Armageddon. We were spit on, we were assaulted, police were called, the media was there…[It put] the death nail into that coffin.”
After relocating to a plot of land outside city limits, MLF used $18 million in private donations to open Phase 1 of the Village, which has the capacity to house over 200 people. While many Austin residents objected to the community being built too close to home, there was still incredible local support for the concept. The Village boasts dozens of community partners, from businesses to nonprofits to churches and schools.
While the price tag on launching the Village seems high, the cost of homelessness to a city is even higher. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that one chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year, or around $42 million annually in Austin.
Graham believes the Community First model could take root anywhere. “This [problem] is mitigatable if we begin to, jointly as a community, begin to wrap our arms around it,” he said. “We’re hoping that the term ‘Community First’ will be ubiquitous in five to 10 years.”
A smaller community modeled after the Village launched in Springfield, Missouri, in 2018 and has already housed 14% of the city’s chronically homeless. Other developments are in the early planning stages in several cities across the country. And MLF’s Village is slated to expand to house over 480 people in the coming years — nearly half of Austin’s chronically homeless population.
“From a moral point of view, I think it’s a blight on who we are as a culture that we would even allow this to happen,” said Graham. “I have the power and each of us has the power to go and to love and to care.”