Fighting Homelessness in Austin, One Tiny House at a Time

Austinite Alan Graham is being named Citizen of the Year by the Austin Chamber of Commerce for his work.

By Joy DiazFebruary 3, 2016 11:16 am| ,

Few things translate into all cultures and backgrounds. Homelessness is one of them. No matter the country, there are people living in the streets. What varies is how communities try to deal with the issue.

In Austin, Alan Graham has spent decades feeding and housing the destitute with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the organization he founded. Today Graham will be named Citizen of the Year by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. And while you may not have heard his name, chances are you’ve heard one of his most well-known prescriptions for homelessness – building communities of tiny houses for the disabled and chronically homeless.

Image credit Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

The interior of one of the tiny homes at the Community First! Village.

Graham describes his Community First! project as a “27-acre master planned RV park on steroids.” But what sets it apart from any other RV park, Graham says, is something less tangible than just housing.

“The extra bump is centered around the idea of community,” Graham says. “We believe very profoundly that the single greatest cause to homelessness in this country is a profound, catastrophic loss of family.”

The goal of the project isn’t just to get the homeless off the streets and into their own private dwellings, but to build a sense of community. The village includes amenities such as an amphitheater, medical clinic, market and other common areas.

“It’s just this place that draws people out of their tiny homes,” Graham says. “Because right now, we’re building communities, really, in the United States that are isolating people inside of our homes. What we’re doing is trying to reverse that trend by drawing people outside.”

Image credit Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

Ellis Johnston hugs Mobile Loaves & Fishes founder and president Alan Graham at the ground-breaking ceremony of tiny home village in 2014.

Even though Graham’s model is attracting attention – he says people have contacted him wanting to visit Austin to see the project, and Buzzfeed even wrote an article about it – Graham says there’s still hurdles to clear in making projects like Community First! a widespread force in reducing homelessness. One of the biggest obstacles Graham cites is the “not-in-my-backyard” mentality.

“I think the bigger challenge, and one of the five goals of Mobile Loves and Fishes as a corporate entity is to transform the paradigm as to how people view the stereotype of the homeless,” he says. “How do we get people to say, ‘Welcome, yes in my backyard’?”

Image credit Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

One of the tiny home options in the Austin village is a tent home.