Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

A Look at Community First! Village in Austin


We’ll resume our march through homelessness history on August 12, but this week and next I’m taking an introductory look at Community First! Village in Austin. It’s gained national laud and architectural honor as a colorful and creative alternative to both the dumpy hotels in which many among the homeless live out of sight, and the in-your-face tent lines at Malibu and on embankments over freeways.

Austin, a political blueberry floating in a Texas bowl of tomato soup, took a reddish turn on homelessness last year. A hard-fought referendum battle ended with 57% of voters saying thousands of homeless individuals could no longer reside wherever they choose. My guess is that those favoring a ban won because tents had taken over patches of Austin’s most valuable real estate, the beloved hike-and-bike trail along the river just south of downtown.

I suspect my fellow Austinites, and maybe Americans generally, have a sense of fairness that acknowledges homeless individuals need a space, but not the prettiest space. That’s part of the appeal of Community First! Village (CFV), eight miles east of downtown, which opened in 2015 on relatively cheap land laden with weeds and trash: Volunteers filled 20 dumpster trucks with garbage and removed more than 1,000 used tired and two stolen cars.

Now, 325 men and women who were chronically homeless — average age 59, with ten years on the streets or in shelters— live on CFV streets with names like “Grace & Mercy Trail,” “Goodness Way,” and “Gospel Con Carne Circle.” To foster community, most CFV homes don’t have their own bathrooms[SS1]  or kitchens and aren’t more than 200 square feet., That keeps material costs per home below $30,000. Open-air cooking areas and community bathrooms (individual stalls and showers, all with locking doors) aren’t more than a minute’s walk away.

CFV founder Alan Graham’s plan was to “call upon architects to build beautiful microhomes—the goal being that people would want to live there.” That’s happened: Excellent architects volunteered their designs, and wilderness has become a pretty space. The tiny homes are bright and individualistic. The American Institute of Architects, Texas Architect, Engineering News Record, and many other organizations and publications have given awards to CFV.

That curb appeal, plus the comparison with enormous homeless housing costs-per-unit elsewhere—$600,000+ in Los Angeles—has made CFV a philanthropic favorite. Dell Foundation, created with computer money, gave CFV $38 million on last year’s post-Thanksgiving “Giving Tuesday.” Downtown merchants who didn’t like homeless individuals sprawled on their doorsteps have also been supportive, as a recent press release noted: “The Downtown Alliance will continue to support [CFV] every step of the way.” Especially when those steps lead away from downtown.

CFV is openly “faith-based,” with religious services in its main building and lots of involvement from a variety of churches. Residents, though, face no pressure to attend. CFV differs both from conservative “Treatment First” programs that require new attitudes before homeless people can have new homes, and liberal “Housing First” programs that get people under roofs without examining their roots.

The special sauce of Community First! is what its name suggests: Deal with the catastrophic loss of family most homeless people have suffered by building new affiliations. Founder Alan Graham’s autobiography, Welcome Homeless, says “Housing will never solve homelessness. But community will.” He emphasizes “the power of relation, not transaction,” and says “government can only perform a transaction model.”

That criticism of government hasn’t kept officials from Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and many other cities from coming to Austin to see for themselves this new new thing. The danger is that officials struck by CFV’s perky beauty may underestimate how hard it is to build community, especially for those who have survived life on the street by being suspicious of others.

Signs on the door one CFV tiny home I walked by earlier this month proclaimed “Do not disturb” and—for those pushing further—“Take your shoes f-ing off.” Nothing keeps a resident from living off malt liquor and microwaved food. CFV hopes the 20 percent of homes reserved for “missional neighbors”—people who have led more normal lives and have moved into CFV to help those who haven’t—will be salt-shakers for the 80 percent used to “sleeping rough” and communicating roughly.

More next week.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.