- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is an old folk song about a homeless person’s paradise, a place where hens lay soft-boiled eggs and someone can find a smoke by reaching up into the trees and the drinks flow down little streams.

Alan Graham, a devout man with a sly sense of humor, chuckles as he points out the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” sign. The whimsical image is painted on a small stage on a scrubby 27-acre plot just east of Austin. Sometime next year, that scrubland will have been turned into an apparently first-of-its-kind housing project for the chronically homeless run by Graham’s outreach ministry, Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

The $12 million Community First Village will not just be a place for its 225 or so otherwise-homeless tenants to live, Graham said. It will be a fully functioning community, complete with a movie screen and commissary for residents to earn a living, from the time they enter until they die, should they choose to live there until the end.

“What we’re trying to create is a paradise for people who have been living in the opposite of paradise, to allow them a respite from the ravages of the streets,” he said, though he quickly added, “We won’t have cigarette trees or alcohol flowing down the rocks.”

Pieces of the village have already been built, such as a chapel and the movie screen, though the place isn’t yet habitable and the work to make it so started last week, after years of setbacks. Residents objected to several prior locations, with some anxiety among neighbors likely to remain at least until the first residents move in next spring. During the disputes, Graham’s team kept a low profile, an approach that left many aspects of the project a mystery to the general public. Graham has raised enough money to build the first phase of the project, but it is only a little more than halfway to the final amount needed.

There is also the reality that Community First is, essentially, an experiment. No one has combined the various aspects of the village into one community, according to experts in the field, many of whom are nonetheless optimistic about the project. Caritas, an Austin nonprofit that helps homeless people, will provide caseworkers, development firm Bury Inc. helped Graham design the place, H-E-B is helping set up the commissary, and the Alamo Drafthouse is involved.

“I really believe this … is something that needs to be replicated in any community that’s having an issue with homelessness,” Mark Horvit, a blogger who writes about homeless issues around the country, said as part of a recent dispatch for the Huffington Post.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes now operates 100-odd trailers across Austin that house otherwise homeless people. The Community First Village expands that effort; when finished, it’ll have about 100 trailers, plus 25 tent-cottages and 100 “micro-unit” homes that are less than 200 square feet - all intended to facilitate a simple life. Residents will pay between $120 and $250 in rent, with income expected to come from federal assistance or whatever they can earn. The rent will cover much of the roughly $1 million operating budget, Graham said. The first phase should be completed in the spring.

Graham said the village is intended to be part of the larger community, but the portion of it where residents live will be gated - a step he said is intended to keep out unwanted visitors and give residents a sense of privacy they haven’t had for years, if at all, during their adult lives.

As he led a tour into one of the micro-units recently built as a display model, Graham was careful to note the place is intended to serve the chronically homeless - the portion of the homeless population that, due to mental illness or substance abuse or other issues, cannot keep a home under typical circumstances. For chronically homeless people, said Graham, who is considered one of the nation’s experts on the subject, halfway houses and other “transitional housing” are ultimately ineffective.

That approach “presumes we can fix people,” Graham told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/1u3ZAcE ). “I’ve learned a lot about homelessness at this point, and I can tell you, the catch-and-release approach doesn’t work on humans.”

Community First will strip away much of the chaos of everyday living. A chapel that might fit six people - Graham, a minister, said there will be services, but residents won’t be pressured to attend - sits in the center of one of the “reflection areas,” along with a tree swing, a deck with a picnic table and a hammock. Across the property, the Alamo Drafthouse’s outdoor theater will target people coming to events at the Travis County Exposition Center, which sits on a hill overlooking the village. The shows will provide an opportunity for residents to sell ice cream or engage in other entrepreneurial opportunities, such as selling crafts made at a workshop. Plans call for a medical building for physical and mental health needs.

On the weekends, volunteers have already been harvesting peppers, okra and tomatoes from the work-in-progress community garden that is supposed to provide much of the village’s food. The village will raise chickens and rabbits for meat.

Community First is the fourth serious try at such a location. After offers for city land fell through three different times, Graham found a property off Johnny Morris Road. Neighbors there objected as well, saying they didn’t want a concentration of poverty or other risks they thought the project would bring.

Graham said residents will have to follow the same kinds of rules that many homeowners associations enforce, and that violating them will result in immediate expulsion, whether the violations be fighting, urinating in public - two behaviors he insists are unlikely among people living in a secure situation - or simply failing to pay the rent.

Paul Bury, who designed much of the complex, said “the engineer in me” was sold after making a simple calculation. Austin has between 1,000 and 1,500 chronically homeless people, depending on the count. Working off the high end of that range, Community First would take one out of every six of them off the streets. Each homeless person no longer on the streets saves a community about $40,000 annually in services such as emergency room visits, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Caritas decided to become a partner on the project partly because many aspects of it have been tried elsewhere, just not in concert, said Jo Kathryn Quinn, its executive director. Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., has 60 residents living in a large tent community, and that city plans to build as many as four small communities of micro-homes for the homeless.

Combining the services, housing, garden, entrepreneurial opportunities and general self-sufficiency idea could work, Quinn said - in theory.

“It’s definitely in theory, because we have not had any projects like this,” she said, “but there are so many aspects similar to other (communities) that it doesn’t feel like a stretch.”

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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