East Austin neighborhood for the homeless breaks barriers

A faith-based nonprofit has taken a new approach to the issue of chronic homelessness in Austin: building a supportive community.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an organization dedicated to promoting dignity for the chronically homeless, began as a food truck delivering meals, hygiene products and clothing to the needy but has now expanded to develop the Community First! Village, a 27-acre affordable housing development of more than 200 microhomes, RVs and canvas-sized cottages.

In February 2017, Austin City Council ordered the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) to conduct a study to produce a draft action plan to eliminate homelessness in the city. The plan, released Feb. 1, outlines five key goals: increase street outreach and emergency housing services, address disparities in opportunities for marginalized groups, build an effective resource system, encourage community commitment, and increase permanent supportive housing.

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The Community First! Village addresses the fifth goal, extending the Housing First approach to mitigating homelessness: Provide emergency housing, then permanent housing that connects the individual with the support necessary to meet a standard lease agreement. Once an individual has secured long-term housing, treatments for substance abuse and mental illnesses and other issues that may have contributed to their homelessness are most effective.

The village is designed as a permanent – rather than transitional – housing solution for the chronically homeless, filling a void in their lives by providing a stable support system.

Bonnie Durkee, a resident of the village, is a diabetic amputee who is partially blind. She has been able to access the treatment needed to manage her condition after moving in.

“You take what you got, and you build on it,” Durkee said. “And that’s what this place is allowing us to do. It’s getting us ready. It’s allowing us to make the transition and make the change.”

While a monthly income sufficient to pay rent is required, some residents receive rent subsidies through the City of Austin Coordinated Assessment, a single application that determines eligibility for a variety of assistance programs. Residents also have the opportunity to earn a steady, dignified income through Community Works, a Mobile Loaves & Fishes initiative in which volunteers and paid homeless individuals work side by side on enterprises including farming, artwork, blacksmithing and woodworking.

To qualify to live in the community, an individual must have been chronically homeless – living in a place not meant for human habitation and has been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, mental illness, or developmental disability – for at least one year or for four 90-day periods within the last three years.

If approved, the individual moves into a RV or an about 200-square-foot cottage or home with enough room for a bed, a desk, a mini fridge and a microwave. Shared kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities are housed separately. Other amenities at the village include gardens and walking trails, a community market, a medical facility, a bed and breakfast for visitors, a bus stop connecting to downtown, and an outdoor cinema.

But according to Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the most valuable things the community provides are a family and a safe place to call home.

“[Homeless individuals] are used to looking over their back, or they’re used to being on the receiving end and the victims of crime,” Aitchison said. “They’re very vulnerable. So there are lots of walls built up around our friends. So once they live out here for a while, their walls begin to lower and they begin to feel more settled … They have the strength of the community around them.”

 

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