Thursday, March 9, 2017

One night at Community Inn can change a life

Community Inn B&B and Alamo Drafthouse Outdoor Cinema

I could already tell that this was a different sort of bed & breakfast establishment as I drove down Hog Eye Road in rural East Austin and saw the cluster of teepees, Airstream trailers, RVs and tiny houses off in the distance. In their midst stood a large screen and amphitheater for the free outdoor cinema that shows movies every Friday night when the weather is warm. Pulling into the parking lot, a "Welcome to Community First! Village" sign greeted me. And even though the sky was drizzling rain and the temperature had dropped by 20°F since the previous day, I did, in fact, feel warmly welcomed.

Community Inn is not the typical bed and breakfast, and Community First! Village is not a typical neighborhood. This is for the kind of getaway that bridges both voluntourism and modern homesteading. It is for the person who wants to become friends with strangers, work with their hands and be exposed to different perspectives.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Dorm-style lodging in the teepees are $40/bed

Community First! is a 27-acre, master planned community that's unique because its mission is to provide homes to the chronically homeless. I've been hearing about this endeavor for a few months and was intrigued enough to take a tour with the founder, Alan Graham, last weekend. Community Inn serves as a micro-enterprise for residents to earn a living — far better than holding up cardboard signs and begging at intersections — as well as a means to connect "regular people" with those who have lived on the streets. By breaking down social barriers, Community Inn hopes to inspire guests to serve the homeless in their own hometowns.

The bed and breakfast takes up just a small section of the 27 acres. Liz Lambert, the brains behind Austin's ultra hip Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia boutique hotels, served as an adviser to the community planners and modeled it after El Cosmico, her mix of specialty accommodations just outside of legendary Marfa in West Texas. The teepees are dorm style and offer individually booked beds. Most of the rest of the lodging has a maximum occupancy of 1-3 people; although one camper can hold as many as 5 guests. Only some of them have ensuite bathrooms, so guests may need to trek to the nearby shared bath and shower building. All of them include breakfast.

This tiny house called Ruby is part of the B&B micro-enterprise.

My daughter is a fan of tiny house television shows, and I'd love to take her out here for a night. The little wooden hut named "Ruby" is the one that calls to me with its downstairs sleeping nook and upstairs sleeping loft all on a 15 foot chassis. A kitchenette and a bathroom with shower are packed into that space, too. I imagine us enjoying the free Friday night movie hosted by Alamo Drafthouse just outside our door and dining on food from Community Grille and Sweet Treats — two other micro-enterprises staffed by the formerly homeless residents. After a night in our cozy beds, it's time to get to know the residents of Community First! Village a little better.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
The Community Grille, open during movie nights, is another micro-enterprise for village residents.

There's an abundance of activities through the Community Works program. However, they are open to the public and in high demand, so checking availability and reserving them when you book the B&B is advisable. Its mission is to provide various micro-enterprise opportunities for the formerly homeless to earn a dignified income. Six acres of the property are cultivated land, so Genesis Gardens is always in need of extra helping hands. Tasks range from building garden beds, harvesting produce, prepping it for the farmers market and tending to the chickens, rabbits, donkeys and goats. They even hope to offer goat milking in the future! A fruit and nut orchard, catfish farm and honeybee apiary are also part of the gardens. All food grown here is offered to residents free of charge, and the rest is sold at a farmers market with the money going back to the residents. Property beautification involves landscaping yards, laying pathways and making the village an overall visually welcoming place. With all of these, you work alongside the formerly homeless residents, so that you can learn their story and break down your stereotypes of street people.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
This Kitchen Garden is part of 6 cultivated acres in the Community First! Village

The most unique activities in the village take place in the Art House, Forge and Woodshop. When I dropped in during the tour, one group was partaking in a book binding workshop in the Art House. A hand-built pottery session is being offered this upcoming weekend. Sessions at the blacksmith forge range from making a center hole punch to shaping a 2.5-pound rounding hammer out of a piece of steel. In late April, Community First! is hosting a Forging Competition with blacksmiths from all around the USA showing off their skills. I didn't get to see inside the woodshop, but if the other two workshops are any indication, I'm sure interesting activities must take place inside. An Airstream by the B&B area with a Whole Cloth Fiber Studio sign hanging in the window also has me looking forward to coming back.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Whole Cloth Fiber Studio by the B&B

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Heating iron at the Blacksmith Forge

Everyone who signs up for a workshop is paired with a formerly homeless resident of the village who will assist the guest. Bonnie, one of the residents that I chatted with, said it's really beneficial to them because it gives these residents time in the workshop and also helps fund the community artists. The artists' creations such as paintings, printed cards, carved votive holders, leather key chains, jewelry and iron decor are all for sale in the Community Market. 100% of the profit goes back to the artist. Isn't that wonderful?

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Resident artists sell their works at the Community Market by the B&B.

Iron heart pendants from the blacksmithing workshop

An initial visit to the Community First! Village is not compete without a tour. Frankly, I was bowled over and impressed by the quality of the micro-houses where the formerly homeless now live. This is no shanty town. KOA campgrounds with its mix of RVs, tent sites and cabins was the initial inspiration for the village. The Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a Tiny Victories design competition to create innovative solutions for affordable, efficient housing. Fifty-four home designs ranging in size from 144 to 200 square feet were part of the juried competition.

A post shared by Michele (@malaysian_meanders) on 
A formerly homeless person lives in this winner of the Tiny Victories juried architectural design contest.
Rent is $320/month including utilities.

The village founders turned to the public for the funding to build these homes, and the public rose to the challenge. All opportunities to sponsor a micro-home at $20,000 each have already been taken. The houses are constructed by professional builders using all new materials. Volunteers help prepare the homes for move-in, and people are invited to donate new goods for the housewarming baskets. Canvas-sided cottages (i.e. glamping tents) and RVs are other housing options on site. The village aims to ultimately house 250 formerly homeless people, and they are about halfway to that goal after being open for just over one year. Rent ranges from $225-$380 per month with utilities included. Residents use money earned from micro-enterprises in the village, traditional jobs outside the community, Social Security and disability pay to cover the rent.

A giant chess set, playground, contemplative prayer labyrinth and chapel round out the other areas of the village. There's a health clinic on site as well as a city bus stop to provide transportation to residents who work outside the neighborhood.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Imagine moving from living on the streets into this dogtrot-style micro-home,
another winner of the juried architectural contest. 

Community First! Village is based on the Housing First approach to ending homelessness. According to the program, not having a home is a Catch-22 obstacle for a person who is trying to get off the streets. Without a home, they have no address to put on job applications. Without access to a shower, there's no place to clean up for an interview. There is no secure place to leave what little belongings they have if they actually get hired and go to work.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Canvas cottages rent for $225/month including utilities

However, the village is more than just a reliable place to find shelter. As the name implies, it's about community, too. Founder and CEO of Community First! Village, Alan Graham, says the biggest cause of homelessness is a "catastrophic loss of family and friends." The chronically homeless have no one to fall back on or take them in, so they end up on the streets. The village aims to create a safety net with a surrogate family and support system for these folks. The houses are so tiny because they don't have bathrooms or kitchens. There are no private backyards. As Graham puts it, this is a "27-acre, 250 bedroom mansion."

All the residents are naturally channeled into the communal living spaces multiple times a day so they can bond with their neighbors. After a lonely life on the streets, this is often not an easy task. Each resident gets two caseworkers to assist in the transition. The shared bathhouse and laundry rooms are part of the micro-enterprise system here. Outdoor grills and the communal kitchens with stoves and ovens foster relationships centered around daily meals. A 1,300 square foot commercial kitchen is under construction on site where these residents plan to prepare meals and then distribute them out on the streets to those who are currently hungry and homeless. Hospice and respite care is also provided in the village. Residents are surrounded by community until the end.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
Village Chapel where all are welcome, regardless of whether or not they have religion

The village does not solely focus on building connections between humans, it encourages the ones with "man's best friend," too. For many of the homeless, a dog was their only companion during their long days and nights on the streets. Pets are definitely allowed in the community, and the spacious dog agility park with it's very own red fire hydrant is a sign of how welcome they are.

I drove away from Community First! Village with a sense of excitement about this novel initiative. My 14-year-old son was unusually attentive and interested throughout the entire tour. That speaks well for how captivating this approach to serving the homeless is. A few weeks earlier, he and some school friends had organized a donation drive to gather supplies like hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, toothpaste and travel size toiletries to be distributed to those living on the streets. For many years, my family has been providing hard boiled eggs or home-baked cookies to Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the parent organization of Community First! Each night, multiple food trucks from Mobile Loaves and Fishes go out on the streets of Austin to deliver food to the homeless and the poor.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Community First Village
The first Mobile Loaves & Fishes food truck that brought meals to the homeless nightly.

By walking around the village, my son and I could see that there was a way to go beyond satisfying the immediate, basic needs of the homeless and offer them a way to lift themselves up to a more stable life. According to Graham in his interview with the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, "It’s not enough just to give someone a sandwich, you have to move into a relationship with [homeless] people. When people of seemingly different backgrounds come together, our backgrounds turn out to be not so seemingly different" There's something to be said about traveling all over the world and bridging international culture gaps. Other times, you realize that you don't have to go to another country to enter another world. If you visit Austin and spend a night at the Community Inn, I'm sure you'll be just as inspired as I am.


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  1. What a unique place and concept! I've never heard of any place like this before. I hope it's wildly successful so that it spreads across the US. And I love how they've allowed and included pets, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Now I understand why this place can change a life. The concept is very innovative and I believe we need more places like this. I know a lady that was homeless for 10 years. Her stories have given me a different perspective of life. #TPThursday

  3. What an amazing experience! This is a really touching story! And I definitely wouldn't mind living in an airstream like a gypsy! #Wkendtravelinspiration

  4. This is a fascinating community and a great concept. I like the different lodging options and the workshops sound interesting.

  5. Oh this is so 'why' I love the blogosphere. . .these kind of informative pieces just can't be found elsewhere. What an incredible undertaking. We are grappling with homeless issues in Seattle and we saw it again loud and clear in Honolulu. Wouldn't it be great if this concept could catch on!! Great reporting!

  6. What a wonderful concept. I love that you can have a getaway and contribute to a needy cause.

  7. I would love to stay here. Katherine recently went to El Cosmico in Marfa and loved it. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  8. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I would love to stay here. Who knows, someday I'll be in Austin and will certainly give it a try! #wkendtravelinspiration

  9. This sounds like such a cool organization! Man, just reading your post, I'm starting to get excited about the work that they do! It's easy to see that a lot of thought and passion is put into the running of this B&B!

  10. I love this! What a great concept and program. I really hope other cities pay attention to what Austin is doing. This is just another reason to visit Austin. this was really inspiring and I wish them the best with this project.

  11. Indah Nuria SavitriMarch 27, 2017 at 3:04 PM

    What a great place! An adventure of its own, I can to see those model houses as well..

  12. Hi

    Again, I am here. Thanks for your wonderful sharing and discussion. Your opinion and idea really very great. Thanks for your suggestion. Keep on good work. All the very best to you further ahead.

    Krishan Kargwal


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