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Austin's Experimental 'Micro-Housing' Project for Chronically Homeless Breaks Ground

Yesterday, a decade-long dream took root for Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Graham and the organization celebrated the groundbreaking of Community First, a self-sustaining, employment-focused village for chronically homeless Austinites on the mend near Decker Lane.

The experiment aims to end homelessness by cheaply renting out up to 240 colorful cottages, offering tenants homegrown produce, employment services and a roof over their head in northeast Austin.

Ten years ago, when Graham had his idea, he was often told it was a great idea, but nobody wanted it in their backyard. That changed when he got a call from Alamo Drafthouse co-founder Tim League, who told Graham he had a crazy idea he wanted him to hear. League proposed partnering withHotel San Jose to build a bed and breakfast, along with an outdoor Alamo Drafthouse, inside the grounds of Community First.

"The people that are going to work in that environment, that are going to provide the food service, the hospitality, the landscaping and the maintenance are all going to be people that are going to be living inside this community," Graham said.

Both Alamo Drafthouse and Hotel San Jose provided crucial seed funding to get Graham’s idea off the ground.

At yesterday’s ceremony, savvy businessmen, seasoned politicians and even some law enforcement officials in attendance had tears in their eyes after hearing the stories of the formerly-homeless.

Cisco Pruett was not crying, though. He's not homeless anymore, and he says Community First will almost be ideal. But the people who will be working there, he says, will need to be a little less idealistic if they want to succeed.

“I’ve been on the streets, and I don’t care what kind of community you have,” Pruett said. “There’s always going to be conflict. You have different pockets of homeless and their little camp and their little enclosure. It’s almost tribal.”

Pruett says only those who've been inside know the culture, and it's crucial to teach it to others to be successful.

The ultimate goal is to have 240 homes at Community First. Some will be small cottages, some will be RV's – Graham owns 60 all over town, which he rents out to homeless folks looking to turn their lives around – and, still, more will be tee-pees.

Once Mobile Loaves and Fishes completes its $7 million capital campaign, the community will be ready to start moving people in, but the non-profit is not sure how long that will take. 

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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