RVs and Gardens and Kittens, Oh My! (Annalise Irby)

Today we took a field trip to a very innovative and inspiring project called Community First!, funded by Mobile Loaves and Fishes (http://mlf.org/community-first/). Allen Graham gave our engineering class a tour of the Community First showcase property, a smaller version of the project they hope to build on a 27-acre property nearby. The grounds model a beautiful vision of alternative living for the formerly homeless, based on the idea that loss of family is the main cause of homelessness (exacerbated by issues like mental health or addiction when no support systems are in place). When formerly homeless and lost people can work for their place in a community where they build and use their skills of creation and construction and reconnect with the earth, they can reverse their positions completely.

The property was a beautiful, spacious lot with many facilities: for example, pavilions that served as churches and communal kitchens, medical facilities, mechanical parts stores, and much more. This program partners with Genesis Gardens to create expansive vegetable plots and an aquaponics system and also raise chickens, rabbits, bees, and tilapia fish. (There was even an adorable litter of kittens living inside one of the unfinished microhomes!) The most inspiring part was that the formerly homeless did most of this work (including housing restoration, furniture building through the Rework Project, and caring for the animals) for themselves. Aside from gaining some self-sufficiency in eating vegetables, eggs, and, yes, rabbit that they have grown collaboratively, Community First residents can form bonds, develop new skills and use existing ones, work purposefully for a stable community, and even turn the tables to teach volunteers skills that they can feel pride in.

Community First’s property showcases several types of homes for the formerly homeless, including microhomes (Tiny Houses designed in partnership with UT Architecture), sturdy tents, and renovated RVs. We got the chance to step inside many of these, and they are absolutely gorgeous and extremely comfortable! I was very jealous of their renovated Airstream, which looked as good as new and comfortably kitted out. A formerly homeless individual can rent one of these homes for $3 to $6.5 a day. Their sources of income to cover this cost include up to $700 a month from the federal government (if they’re eligible to sign up for SSI or SSDI benefits), working for pay on renovation and construction projects in Community First, and other construction, automechanics, and projects they can sell at craft fairs. In the end, they have an address to apply for jobs and a stable community and support system – plus so much more.

In order to expand their project onto the 27-acre lot nearby, Community First needs to raise the remaining half of $6 million, which Allen Graham hopes to do by the end of the year. After that, it may take 9 months or more to construct and fully expand into their new community, which could include 200 formerly homeless. I, for one, was very inspired and excited by his housing solutions and community-building. It would be exciting for our class to volunteer there sometime in the future! (Partly to see those kittens again.)

Annalise Irby


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