Hosting Field Trips and Alamo Drafthouse Movie Nights, Plus Art and Service Opportunities Galore, This Neighborhood Puts Community First.
Words by Jessica Hagemann Photos by Parker Thornton
There’s a new neighborhood in far east Austin, unlike anything the city has seen before. Its grounds are beautifully manicured. Its houses have been designed by Austin architects. From every front porch, neighbors wave to friends and visitors alike. There’s an open-air amphitheater for viewing movies under the stars, flanked by one of the freshest food trailers in town. A small shop, situated among blooming fruit and nut trees, sells modestly-priced gifts handmade by the community’s residents, next door to an on-site medical center and across from an organic vegetable garden. Are you ready to move in yet?
This is Community First!, a 27-acre initiative of the Austin-based nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Developed to provide affordable, permanent housing for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas, in just a few years’ time Community First! has become a true lifestyle brand. Attracting urban planners, interior designers, and volunteers from around the country seeking meaningful and sustainable service opportunities, today Community First! is a privately-funded $17 million dollar “mansion” with 240 “bedrooms” for displaced “friends”—the first of its kind in the country and a true “epicenter for innovation” in the fight against chronic homelessness.
Driving into Community First!, the first thing you notice is the permanent outdoor movie screen and rows of neat benches sponsored by the Alamo Drafthouse. Then you see the crisp teepees and an assortment of modern micro-homes clustered together, which serve as bed-and-breakfast accommodations for youth groups, volunteers, and the otherwise curious passing through town. Follow the wide, paved street as it curves around RVs and canvas-sided cottages, through neatly kept and brightly painted tiny homes, and you’ll find a state-of-the-art community center in the final stages of construction. Tour the art studio complete with paints and kilns, watch the blacksmiths bent over their ovens, and pause for a quiet moment in the serene chapel. Finally, join in the home blessing as a new resident moves into the neighborhood—followed by lunch made with love in the chef-grade outdoor kitchens.
“Every home has a front porch and no home has a backyard,” says Thomas Aitchison, Director of Communications: “You couldn’t escape community here if you wanted to!”
Each fully-furnished and professionally-decorated housing unit is outfitted with WiFi and electricity, and includes a crockpot, microwave, and mini-fridge. Both residents and residential volunteers accepted into the Community First! program are offered their first choice of unit, and everyone pays rent. In true sustainable style, the program is a ‘hand up,’ not a handout, with residents and school groups, church groups and formerly-homeless individuals, working side by side to make the whole community—the one that all of us create and share—better for everyone. “The vision—the why,” says founder Alan Graham, “begins with compassion.” Community First! is about restoring dignity, and thereby a healthy community, one life and one relationship at a time.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the parent organization behind Community First!, was founded 18 years ago by Graham and five friends as a food truck ministry. Graham was inspired to start MLF after attending a particularly powerful men’s retreat, during which the “intellectual relationship that [he] had with Christ dropped into [his] heart,” prompting him to adopt a “Just Say Yes” philosophy of service. As he explains, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is the only miracle outside the Resurrection to appear in all four Gospels. When Jesus directs the disciples to feed a crowd of 5,000 using only five barley loaves and two dried fish, not only are the multitudes fed, but there are 12 wicker baskets of scraps left over. In other words, “All you need to do is offer up what you have,” says Graham, “and [your offering] gets multiplied. Here at Community First!, many hands can do much work!”
• Amphitheater for community movie nights under the stars
• Architect-designed chapel
• Bed-and-breakfast for individuals and groups desiring exposure to a lifestyle of service
• Chef-grade outdoor kitchen
• Convenience store that sells ‘basic needs’ items, as well as gift items (like forged bottle openers and pottery) handmade by residents in the Community Works program who are working to earn a income
• Genesis Gardens: three acres of “Better than Whole Foods” organic produce, made available to residents for free
• Memorial garden for interring the ashes of residents who wish to be buried on-site
• Outdoor play gym for visiting children
• Private laundry, restroom, and shower facilities
• Topfer Family Health Resource Center, affording immediate access to primary and behavioral healthcare
9301 Hog Eye Road