Thursday, October 18, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

More homes, services on the way for homeless with Community First! expansion

A Northeast Austin community constructed in recent years to provide permanent housing to Austin’s chronically homeless has announced its plans for a second phase that will nearly double its physical footprint to 51 acres and, when complete, serve nearly 800 people.

At a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday for the Community First! Village, a mix of city, county and state leaders gathered to hear about the expansion of the community that will also include the creation of a 20,000-square-foot health care facility focusing on hospice and respite care, seven outdoor kitchens, an 8,000-square-foot multipurpose facility, and two acres of organic garden.

Community First! is privately funded but has for years received the enthusiastic backing of local politicians for what is seen as a novel approach to helping the most chronically homeless find housing. The Wednesday ceremony also kicked off a $20 million fundraising campaign that will help pay for the expansion.

It is estimated that when the second phase is complete the community could take in more than half of the roughly 1,200 people believed to be chronically homeless in the Austin area.

“These are the most vulnerable, oftentimes the most despised. … They should not be … the most outcast, and we welcome them into the center of the circle of our town,” said Alan Graham, founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the nonprofit organization that runs the community. “Many of these men and women have been on the streets for 10, 20, 30 and in one case 40 years, if you can even possibly fathom that.”

Homelessness and the growing affordability crisis for the fast-growing city have become some of the largest issues in local government in recent years, with the ongoing challenges of managing the overflow of clients at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless downtown as an ongoing pain point.

Mayor Steve Adler said Community First! has earned the widespread support it has received and is working to solve a component of the homelessness issue that the city hasn’t been able to. He also highlighted the recent increase in budget allocations directed toward launching new programs at the ARCH.

“The challenge of changing the lives of folks experiencing homelessness in a chronic way is something that we share with other large, fast-growing cities,” he said. “We have prioritized doing that. We’ve set as our number one priority the challenge of addressing homelessness in our city. … That priority represents itself in how we spend money. One community, program and vision is not going to end the problem of homelessness that we have. It’s going to take lots of different programs and concepts as we deal with the different variations of homelessness.”

The city is also in the beginning stages of soliciting applications for the contract to manage the ARCH, with the selection expected to be made early next year.

Graham said there are a variety of options for how to change the structure and operation of the center.

“Currently there’s no outdoor access to restrooms; they finally put port-a-potties out there. In a civil society we should always have access to bathrooms, and I’ve always challenged people on that. And the availability of clean, potable water at all times is a human dignity element, and if you’re not hydrated well you’re going to get sick easier, and that’s going to cost us down the line,” he said.

“Creating more welcoming spaces both inside and outside would have a dramatic impact. There’s some fundamental things you could do with that facility that’s not going to change homelessness overnight … but it would change the perception, not only on the part of the people being served but on those that are impacted in the neighborhood by that facility.”

Graham also said the city should pursue public-private partnerships if it elects to utilize some of the more than a dozen parcels of city-owned land to provide affordable housing, which can play a part in addressing affordability and keeping people from losing their homes.

“The city has to partner with the market. We’re an example of the market because we’re funding this almost entirely with private money,” he said.

“There’s a role to play for the market to partner with government to do this at an even faster rate because there is a limitation to the amount of resources that even the government has available to it. We’ve also got to soften the hard edges of the hearts of our neighborhoods that don’t want affordable housing in their neighborhoods. It’s that not-in-my-backyard culture that’s a pandemic in the entire United States of America, where we’ve got to start to change the hearts of people that are saying no and start to welcome you.”

Photo by Thomas Aitchison (MLF.org).

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