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Alan Graham is a tough old man with a big heart for sufferers. He lives with his black lab Franny (named after Francis of Assisi) in a tiny house in the homeless village he founded. Wearing a ball cap, blue button-up shirt, glasses, and a silver crucifix necklace, he makes his rounds through the village, greeting residents by name. One July afternoon, he stopped to greet a white-haired woman and her two fluffy dogs running underfoot.
“Are you making enough for everybody?” he called to an African-American man grilling pork chops on his front porch.
In his mid-60s, Graham has seen a lot. Twenty years ago, he started going to the streets to feed the homeless. Along with five friends, he started a food truck ministry called Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF) in 1998 with only a minivan. The ministry gives its 19,000-plus volunteers a chance to do something toward the visible problem of homelessness in Austin, Texas.
In January 2018, the city of Austin (population 950,715) identified 2,147 homeless people living in shelters or on the streets, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
To address the problem, the city partnered with local nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) to develop Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness in February 2018. Organizations like the Salvation Army, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and Caritas of Austin work together to provide a range of services and programs to match individuals with permanent housing. But Austin residents still cannot go far without seeing grocery carts stuffed with belongings lined up under bridges and people with cardboard signs panhandling at intersections.
Though he partners with the city to manage information about the homeless and receives referrals from them, Alan Graham believes, ultimately, government efforts to help the homeless are ineffective because they misdiagnose the cause of the problem: He says his Christian convictions and years of interacting with homeless individuals have shown him homelessness comes from a “profound and catastrophic loss of family.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) operates from the belief that what homeless people need most is housing, so it adopted a Housing First model. Graham believes homeless people most basically need a family, so he started the Community First Village.
“Housing will never solve homelessness,” he said. “But community will.”
The first resident moved into the Village in 2015. The residents live in 100 RVs and 140 houses that each cost approximately $29,000 to build. It only accepts chronically homeless individuals who complete a Coordinated Assessment form, fill out an application, and tour the property. To avoid eviction, residents must pay rent and comply with community rules. How much, or how little, they participate in community life is up to them.
Community First offers residents the chance to participate in weekly worship services, Bible studies, and mission trips led by an evangelical pastor, Matt Freeman. While Graham is Roman Catholic, Freeman is Protestant, and staff members come from a variety of denominational backgrounds. Some people live at the Village for the purpose of reaching out to residents with the gospel. Some of these “missional families” moved from other states to serve in this way.
Residents are not required to work on-site, though several do. According to Graham, 80 percent receive government subsidies that cover their cheap monthly rent (the most expensive is $430 plus electricity per month). Sometimes he sees residents panhandling at intersections, begging for money as they did before moving to the Village.
Graham acknowledges that the Village is not the answer for everyone. It is designed for the chronically homeless. Most have been on the streets for so long he believes it would be impossible for them to keep a normal full-time job or have an independent life. Graham believes the best thing he can do for them is give them a safe, comfortable environment and friendship.
Richard moved to Community First after 12 years of homelessness. He has thin brown hair, gray-brown stubble, dimples, and blue eyes with pinpoint pupils. Richard said he used to juggle on the side of the street, only caring about his next high, until his mom pushed him toward the Village. When he first moved in, all he would do is finish work and go home to watch Netflix. Neighbors reached out, but he wanted nothing to do with them. Then, one day, he had a stroke from the heat. He was out of work for three weeks and couldn’t pay rent when the time came. Instead of evicting him, the Village gave him time to get back on his feet.
Now he works in the gardens, greenhouse, and inn, and he knows everyone within 10 houses of him in every direction.
“You can’t force people to change,” he said. “Only love them and show them a better way and hope they join in.”
Not all the residents respond to the opportunity for a better way, though. Staff members try to exert positive peer pressure on residents to change in the context of friendships. But Graham acknowledged a few residents keep to themselves, and no one ever sees them.
People can live at the Village permanently without working, going through counseling or job training, or passing drug tests.
Graham and other staff members keep track of which residents use drugs. He said that five minutes before Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks drop, those people line up at the ATM in the Village, even though it’s a few minutes before midnight on a Wednesday. Graham and other staff members talk to the residents who are addicted, letting them know they aren’t hidden and offering help to change. But they leave to the residents the choice of whether to use.
Graham said the Village offers entrepreneurial, social, and spiritual opportunities for residents to grow. He talks about helping residents achieve dreams and reach their potential, but he does not believe in measuring success, in contrast with Transformation First approaches (see sidebar below). “We don’t use words like ‘cured’ and ‘solved.’”
The only goal Graham articulated for the residents was “I hope that they die and are buried here.” Fifteen residents have died since the Village opened. Their cremated remains rest in a memorial garden in the community.
Providing people comfort, opportunities, and love gives them dignity, according to Graham. Even if they do not change their lives or embrace the community, they are still better off than they were. He contrasted Community First Village with the reality of Austin’s streets, where drug addicts camp outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH): “Go down to the ARCH,” Graham said. “Go look at the debacle. Look at the trash can of humanity. Compare that to the exact same people here.”
‘A unified theory of change’
In northern Virginia, Christopher Fay also runs a program distinct from the mainstream. He agrees that the Housing First model misses something, but he and Alan Graham (see mainbar) serve different populations of homeless, and they differ on what their clients need first.
Homestretch is a program that challenges the homeless to rise out of poverty to independence through hard work. The program offers housing for only two years, and during that time the staff members do all they can to remove obstacles (lack of child care, transportation, job training, or education) from participants’ paths. Though the state sends Homestretch their toughest cases, 90 percent of people in their program successfully graduate.
Fay said, “What we’re trying to do is change the narrative about what the homeless family can achieve. We’re trying to demonstrate no one need be confined to poverty, homelessness, to despair. Everybody has within them the capacity to fundamentally change the course of their life.”
Many of their clients are younger—often single mothers who want a better life for their kids but come from backgrounds of domestic violence and feel overwhelmed by debt, job pressure, and lack of education. Fay said the basic underlying philosophy of Homestretch is that people need to be “on a pathway toward achievement in which they can experience a sense of growing accomplishment.” Staff members help clients take small steps forward, showing them change is possible. When people no longer feel trapped, they can dream about the future and work to achieve those dreams.
“For me, we have a clear definition of success—the family has moved out of poverty, and we can define that by proof of changed income, changed credit score, evidence of skills and education,” he said. “A unified theory of change.”
Sometimes Homestretch clients show themselves not up to the challenge and drop out. But the majority who start the program finish it, equipped with the skills to improve their lives. “You have to believe that they’re capable of it and create a pathway where they can experience it firsthand,” said Fay. “Something they can try and then succeed. So that faith in themselves becomes ignited, a fire within themselves, to the point where it gains its own momentum. Then their dreams and their imaginations expand.” —by Charissa Crotts