Texas village puts exclamation mark on efforts to end homelessness

No one ever thought that doing the right deed of feeding homeless people in the Texas capital of Austin would spawn a neighborhood where homeless people are no longer homeless.

But that’s what happened with Community First! Village, the inspiration of Alan Graham, a Catholic who attributes everything to a weekend retreat.

“In 1996, I went to a men’s retreat called Christ Renews His Parish. It had a profound revealing impact on my relationship with Christ, ”Graham told the Catholic News Service in a telephone interview on September 22 – his 37th wedding anniversary.

“I will tell anyone anytime that this ministry would not exist without Christ renewing his ward and my Roman Catholic faith,” he added. “If you look at our vision, our mission, our values ​​and our goals and our core values, five of them, word for word, are outside the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Graham kicked it all off with the help of a few friends at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which ran from a green minivan, then morphed into a food truck, delivering ‘meals with a side of hope’ .

But what about that exclamation mark in the middle of the name? For Graham, it’s really about building community first.

“We built this one operation on the ‘Housing First’ philosophy. We believe that housing is necessary but not sufficient for what humans need. What humans need is human contact. It means you and I need to be connected, ”he said.

He added, “Collective works of mercy are an indelible part of who we are organizationally, but the only way to live these bodily works, and the only way to restore the righteousness, which we will want to restore together, is to live together. . “

Unsurprisingly, “one of our heroes must be Mother Teresa. I took my whole family to Rome four or five years ago when she was canonized, ”Graham said. Caring for the hungry, the naked, the sick and the poor is necessary, he added, “if we really want to live our Christianity.”

The community first! Village has a mix of cottages and RVs across its area in Austin. There is enough housing for around 150 homeless former people as well as nearly 40 “missionaries,” adults who have a presence ministry with an open mind and an open door to engage in conversation with the former residents of the streets.

But in keeping with the notion of a building community, there are structures on the land designed to bring residents together, including community dining rooms, an amphitheater for movies and shows, a carpentry, a ceramics shop, and a smithy.

There is also a chapel, with plans in an upcoming phase of development to build a 400-seat church for worship.

Residents are required to pay rent, but the monthly rent is as low as $ 44. There is a bus stop inside Community First! Village to get residents to work, but there are also plenty of jobs on site to give residents a sense of dignity and self-worth.

Graham said that the village is based on two verses from Genesis: Genesis 2:15, “right after God created the Garden of Eden” with God’s charge to Adam and Eve “to take care of it and cultivate it. And then the communal element of that flows from Genesis 2:18: “God has realized that it is not good for man to be alone. “

Ron Whitmer, a missionary with his wife, Darlene, declared their involvement with Community First! Village started in the mid-2010s.

“Our church that we attend owns two of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes trucks,” he said. “We were part of this ministry, and then the pastor of our mission encouraged us to come here and visit. He thought we could be a good fit.

When they said yes, they knew it would mean a lot less time in Ohio to spend time with one of their sons, his wife and the five granddaughters. “It’s really a lifestyle change. And rather than being here for three or four hours to get in your car and drive away and see it in your rearview mirror, it’s not out of your mind, ”Whitmer said.

“We really didn’t decide this would be where we would end up until we had been here to volunteer and build very meaningful and deep relationships with some of the neighbors,” he added. “When people move in, they are no longer homeless. They are residents. I like to call them neighbors, because that’s what they are.

The ministry of presence requires intention. “All missionaries have a sign at their window with a capital ‘M’ on it so the neighbors know that if they see this ‘M’ in our window, they are free to come knock on our door anytime,” Whitmer said.

Some mornings the Whitmers will make a big batch of breakfast tacos in a community kitchen – and brew copious amounts of coffee – as Community First! The inhabitants of the village start their day and chat with the other inhabitants.

There is also a men’s Bible study on Monday evening which usually ends with food and more discussion. And the casual game of pickleball can generate some conversation.

“A lot of their experiences on the street are very transactional. You go to a local shelter, you take a number, they call your number and you get a bed, ”Whitmer told CNS in a September 23 telephone interview. “Here we want to turn that transactional relationship into a heart-to-heart relationship where we know you, we are for you, we are looking for you to be successful. “

He added, “Our overall goal is to mold Christ for the community, and that type of lifestyle, so that they see in us what we see in Christ.”

The community first! Village is based in Austin, but not necessarily unique to Austin. “The model is being replicated across the country. There are about a dozen replicators, ”Graham said.

“We’re about to figure out what it takes to be community first. Just because we say we are community first, it takes time to understand what it means because we become better equipped by God with what it means.

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