Last week I went to the Innovation Learning Network in Person meeting in Austin, TX. Part of the agenda was going on a mystery “innovation safari” to a local organization thinking innovatively about health and wellness. My assignment was to go to the Community First! Village, operated by Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Full disclosure: I was skeptical based on the limited information I had boarding the shuttle to go to the village.
Then we arrived, and within a few minutes of touring the facilities and listening to the words of founder Alan Graham, my attitude shifted. The Community First! Village offers safe, clean, and welcoming shelter for homeless people in Austin to live in a community setting and become engaged in meaningful work. Using a combination of renovated mobile homes and newly constructed “tiny homes,” MLF has created a neighborhood setting that fosters community within and connections with the larger area community, too.
Of course I’m always viewing the world through the lens of behavior change. So I noticed that, deliberately or not, the Community First! Village incorporates many evidence-based psychological principles that should enhance engagement and foster new habits.
The community aspect of the village is a key way to meet people’s needs for relatedness, or belonging to something bigger than themselves. The village is designed so that residents interact with each other on a regular basis. At the most surface level, the tiny houses don’t have indoor plumbing and so residents make use of shared bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities.
Research shows that mere co-location with others is not really sufficient to form a sense of community, so the village also includes opportunities for more meaningful interaction. One example is the shared kitchen, which residents use to prepare and share family-style meals.
Part of helping homeless people improve their lives is also breaking down stereotypes about homelessness and facilitating a positive relationship with the larger community. The Community First! Village does this in part by using part of their land for community events. There’s a large outdoor theater for movie screenings and concerts that are open to all. Some of the community units can be rented for corporate events or even as a bed & breakfast. Creating opportunities for people outside the community to come in facilitates more positive attitudes toward the residents based on experience.
There is also a metro bus stop available within the Community First! Village, so residents can easily go back and forth to Austin.
The architecture within the village is varied and reflects the look of a typical Austin neighborhood, another way to underscore that people in the village are just like anyone else.
Finally, part of relatedness is sometimes feeling part of something bigger than oneself, such as a spiritual tradition. Community First! offers several physical spaces on their property that facilitate worship. (Alan Graham, while a Roman Catholic himself, said residents are encouraged to pursue whatever spiritual tradition or lack thereof is meaningful for them.)
Competence is the human need for growth and learning. In particular, people who have been homeless for a time may feel this need is unfulfilled for them. Part of the Community First! concept is engaging residents in meaningful work. Alan told us it’s about learning what gifts an individual person has, and then “we try to mine those giftings. I’ve never met anyone on the street who didn’t have some form of gift we could leverage.”
To that end, there are many opportunities for productive work in the community. These include working in the iron forge, helping to build new structures (such as a planned community gathering space), and creating art, soap, or lip balm that is sold in the commissary.
Every home in the community has a monthly rent based on its size and amenities. The rents range from $7/night for the canvas tents (pictured below), to around $340/month for some of the tiny houses and campers. The first rule of living in the community is that rent must be paid on time every month. The accountability this rule creates could also be construed as competence support.
Another aspect of the community that I think lends itself well to competence support is that the expectation is that getting settled precedes focusing on other accomplishments such as earning money or stopping substance use. By letting people get to a place where the most basic concerns of shelter and food are addressed, Community First! Village helps set them up for better success with rehabilitating other areas of their life that may have contributed to their homelessness.
The third fundamental human need is to make meaningful choices about one’s own life, and to exercise deeply held values in those choices. Permitting someone these choices is a way to recognize their humanity and afford them dignity, and Community First! focuses on that.
A simple choice that residents make happens when they are first accepted to the community. They can tour the available homes and select which one they’d like to live in. The homes, as mentioned, vary in type and rent level. They also vary in terms of decor. Each one has been nicely decorated with coordinating linens and artwork, and stocked with basic necessities such as canned goods, plates and cutlery, and electric appliances.
Residents are given other meaningful choices as well: How to earn money (whether in one of the village-based jobs or externally), how much or how little to participate in community life, and whether and how to express their spiritual beliefs. Aside from paying rent on time, the only other two community rules are to follow the civil law, and to behave in accordance with community guidelines (such as picking up after one’s dog or disposing properly of trash). Unlike a homeless shelter, life in the village closely resembles independent living in terms of the autonomy residents can exercise.
I was incredibly impressed by what I saw at the Community First! Village and am optimistic that it will work to help people transition out of homelessness. They speak of being a model for other parts of the country, and that may be true, although I imagine the infrastructure costs in a less temperate area would be significantly greater (no covered canvas tents for a Boston winter!). I’ll be eager to see how the village fares as it grows and matures.
Alan Graham has a book coming out soon called Welcome Homeless about the founding of Mobile Loaves and Fishes and the Community First! Village.
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City offers a valuable perspective on poverty and homelessness in the United States.
If you know of other resources to learn more about the causes of homelessness and effective interventions, please let me know and I will add them.