Special Report: Tiny home village offers model for lifting homeless off the streets

Posted at 4:50 PM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-23 17:50:53-04

A village of tiny homes in Austin may be the answer to helping the homeless get off the streets. Now, city leaders want to bring that concept to Corpus Christi.

KRIS 6 News traveled to the Community First! Village in Austin to see how the model is changing lives.

For one resident, Jerry "Cowboy" Mackbenton, dignity means the ability to open his front door, turn up his favorite music, and be in his own home. 

"It truly is a blessing. I love it where I’m at right here," Mackbenton said. "Nice home. A lot better than where I was at, I can say that." 

He came from was the underside of a bridge. Mackbenton was one of Austin’s chronically homeless. 

"When I was out there I was really worried, under the bridge, I worried about lots of stuff you know," he said. 

However, a year ago this May, Mackbenton got a home of his own in Community First! Village. He signed a year-long lease, got a job maintaining yards in the village, and was welcomed to his new Western-style tiny home with a house blessing celebration. 

"When I moved in, got ready to walk in the door, it hit me man. It was just like golly!" Mackbenton said. "There was lots of people here for my house blessing, and I unlocked the door and go in there, and it was just like aw, man. Because really I wasn’t thinking it was going to be set up like a cowboy style, just like a cowboy would like a home."

Mackbenton’s story of finding belonging has been repeated hundreds of times over in the village. 

"It’s the model that says housing will never solve homelessness, but community will," Alan Graham, Founder and CEO, said. 

Alan Graham is the brainpower behind the community on the outskirts of Austin. The village first opened in 2015, and has grown immensley in just three years.

"You’re on 27 acres that includes about 135 micro homes, different styles, and sizes, all under 200 square foot. About a hundred RVs, fully self-contained, hooked up to city water, city sewer, city electric. Full restrooms, kitchens, everything," Graham said. 

What is on the ground is only the first phase of development. I second phase will expand the village by another 24 acres and 350 homes.

That expansion will give Community First! Village the capability to house half of Austin’s 1,200 chronically homeless people. 

"We don’t believe that you can ever eliminate this for a variety of reasons," Graham said. "But what happens if you mitigate this in our respective cities by 50 percent? What if we could hit as high as 80 percent? Which I believe we can."

The whole project costs approximately $38 million, funded by private donors and foundations. 

Residents also take on jobs in the community and pay rent, around $200 to $400 a month. 

However, the key to this village’s success is not housing. 

"What we need more than housing is that interconnectedness of human beings, that human to human, heart to heart connection," Graham said. 

That is seen through daily conversations with neighbors on the front porch, and in public spaces: an organic garden, a store, a blacksmith shop, movie theater, barber’s shop, and art center. 

Many of those spaces allow residents to embrace their creativity, and become micro-entrepreneurs. 

"Our belief is that over-regulation of entrepreneurial activities is really what’s the driving force behind the panhandling thing that’s going on," Graham said. 

The village also has a health center, and services for addicts, which emphasize harm reduction, instead of complete abstinence. 

Graham says three studies have shown that in the village, drug use drops 80 percent compared to the streets and alcohol use drops by 60 percent. 

He says for the community-based model to work, it is essential to have a dedicated leader and staff, and support from the outside community. 

"We are just burning with passion at what we get to do out here. The entire community will come up underneath that, they will believe," he said. "But if it’s, oh, we’re going to build an RV park over here, and we’re going to put a little community center in that deal, no! We’re going to transform lives, we’re going to transform our community, we’re going to heal the woundedness standing on our street corners and underneath our bridges and in our urban camps. You want to join me in this effort? Come on!"

However, turning a vision into reality comes with one huge obstacle. 

"It’s called ‘not in my back yard.’ And that movement is giant," Graham said. 

With Community First! Village, the solution here was ultimately to build the village just outside of Austin city limits, but graham says the larger accomplishment will be when the public perception of homelessness changes.

"We’re trying to move this into ‘yes in my backyard.’ Come! We’re going to barbecue today. And so it’s trying to move the community into a non-fearful philosophy," he said. 

For those residents that are benefiting, like Mackbenton, a changed life might just be as simple as a warm place to seek shelter on a rainy day. 

"I like to get out and work and stuff, I don’t like to sit in. But when the rain comes and catches me, I’ve got to stay in, I’m watching movies," Mackbenton said. "A couple weeks ago, when it was during all that rain and real cold, I laid in this bed, sat back and laid in this bed, and think look at, isn’t God great? It’s not so much of the big deals as the small things that you should be grateful for. I can say that i’m truly grateful."

In Corpus Christi, a local advisory council on homelessness is moving forward with a model similar to the Community First! Village. Now they are looking for the right location, and an operator to run the village.