Gary Floyd cracks a smile as he looks out across the field, contemplating his favorite aspect of farming this land.
“My tomatoes,” he says finally. “I take a salt shaker and put it in my pocket, and sometimes I’ll cheat and snatch one.”
It’s like choosing a favorite child, though, for Floyd, a farmer at Community First Village, who said he also adores his lavender and his pollinator beds.
“It’s real quiet here, and peaceful,” Floyd says as he pauses to pet the resident farm dog, a hulking white Great Pyrenees named Brodie.
Life on the farm is a welcome change for Floyd, 57, who just a few years earlier was a homeless alcoholic seeking shelter on the streets of Austin.
“I’ve been drinking since I was just a baby old enough to walk from one knee to the other,” Floyd says. “I worked day labor, but all I did was turn around and buy liquor with it. I was almost dead out there.”
Floyd’s life-changing experience at Community First Village is one of many stories of rebirth and redemption that have sprung up within the walls of the tiny houses and RVs that dot this master-planned East Austin neighborhood, which opened three years ago with a mission of providing homes and support to people who are coming out of chronic homelessness. As the neighborhood continues to grow, it's placing Austin in a new spotlight, with groups from across the country looking to replicate this model within their own cities.
Planting the seed
It’s dinner time on a recent Monday, and Tricia Graham is slicing avocados inside the microscopic kitchen of the 399-square-foot tiny home she shares at Community First Village with her husband, Mobile Loaves and Fishes founder and CEO Alan Graham, who has just returned from taking out the trash.
On the outside porch, pink roses bloom like a greeting card come to life near a sign that declares, “Love grows best in little houses just like this.”
It’s a far cry from the 3,000-square-foot Westlake home where the Grahams lived for 34 years, raising four children and a niece.
“We thought we’d have grandkids there and die there basically,” Tricia Graham says.
The Grahams purchased their Westlake home shortly after they were married in the Roman Catholic Church at Tricia’s insistence in 1984.
“It became clear from the beginning that if we were ever going to get married, it was going to have to be in the church,” Alan Graham says. “I was like, ‘If you make me go do that, I’ll do it.’”
“I did,” Tricia Graham says with a laugh.
They settled into busy lives as working parents — Alan was growing his real estate business and Tricia was a legal administrator — and attended church as a family on Sundays, where Alan, who had never been particularly religious, began to develop what he calls an “intellectual relationship with Jesus.”
Then, in 1996, Alan begrudgingly attended a men’s retreat that would alter the course of both his and Tricia's lives.
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“If I had known that men were going to hold hands and pray, much less do that bromance, hug-it-out thing that we do, I would never have gone,” Alan Graham says. “But to me it was a mind-blowing experience, and this intellectual relationship that I had with Christ just dropped a floor into my heart, and I began to go, ‘God, what do you want me to do? Here I am.’”
While still working in real estate, Alan Graham became more involved in his church, St. John Neumann Catholic, coordinating a sack lunch program for people who were homeless. Realizing he could have a greater reach if he had a vehicle, he purchased a food truck and used that to distribute meals. Soon, that program became the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which today includes a fleet of trucks that have served more than 5.5 million meals to-date.
“I fell in love with the people out on the streets,” says Alan Graham, who spent more than 250 nights with them trying to better understand their issues. “The only way I can learn is to become intimately involved and put myself into places where it smells bad. There’s urine, feces, crack cocaine, mental illness and addiction. I wanted to better understand who my friends are.”
During this time, Graham, whose describes his upbringing as “extraordinarily dysfunctional,” realized there was a similarity among nearly all the homeless people he met.
“People on the street have this innate quality of vulnerability. Where you and I try to hide whatever trauma we’ve been through in our lives, they’ll lay out, ‘I’m a crack addict. I’m a prostitute. I’ve been in prison,’” he says. “I began to realize there was a common denominator between each of them, and that was a profound and catastrophic loss of family. It’s a broken family, man.”
Floyd, the farmer, can attest to that. His spiral into homelessness began after he lost his dad, brother, sister and mother, all within a couple of years.
“When I pulled the plug on my mom, I just kind of snapped,” Floyd says. “I was just drunk for 10 years.”
Somewhere along the way, Alan Graham realized that for less than $5,000, he could purchase a used RV that would allow a formerly homeless individual to get off the street. So he bought one. Then another. Then another.
“I began to dream,” he says, “about building an RV park on steroids.”
Life at the village
Alan Graham’s dream became a reality three years ago when Community First Village opened its first phase, a 27-acre master-planned community that now provides affordable, permanent RV and micro-home housing to 170 men and women who are coming out of chronic homelessness. Last fall, Community First also broke ground on an adjacent second phase that will add 24 more acres and allow the full campus to house up to 500 people — roughly 40 percent of Austin’s chronically homeless population.
“In a normal neighborhood, nobody knows what’s happening in your neighbor’s house," Alan Graham says. "In this neighborhood, it’s not hidden. We know everybody battling addiction, we know everybody with a mental health problem. That makes this a very special place, because now you can reach out and help.”
But those who enter the neighborhood — which is funded by donations from corporations, churches, organizations, families and individuals — quickly learn that this is not a stereotypical homeless camp. To stroll the grounds is to discover a place brimming with life, from the baby goats that teeter across the sprawling farm to the juniper that blooms in the garden and is used in the homemade soap that’s sold in the community market. The village was designed to include everything residents could want, including a salon and barbershop, a medical clinic, an addiction treatment center, a mechanic, a dog park, a ceramics studio, a blacksmith shop, a wood shop, an outdoor movie theater donated by Alamo Drafthouse and a food truck popular for its juicy burgers.
Because all Community First Village residents must pay rent, many earn their wages working on-site, from cleaning bathrooms to creating art to sell. Many times, residents find themselves teaching their newly acquired skills to volunteers who frequent the grounds.
“Our neighbors, they are so often on the receiving end of someone’s generosity or someone’s gift, and for them to have the opportunity to be the givers, to be the teachers, that’s huge. It’s empowering,” said Taylor Graham, Community First Village stewardship director and Alan and Tricia Graham’s daughter. “Almost all of our volunteer experiences are meant to partner you in some way alongside those who have found themselves homeless.”
For Floyd, one of the joys of his job as a farmer at the village is sharing his knowledge with others and surprising them with fun facts. For example, how can you tell what color a chicken’s egg is going to be? By the color of its earlobes.
“A lot of kids have only seen a chicken on TV,” he says.
The best part, though, says Floyd, who was homeless for 10 years before becoming sober and moving to the village three years ago, is making sure that none of his neighbors go without food.
“It’s a very positive thing to grow something and turn around and be able to feed people,” Floyd says. “I don’t let nobody go home hungry.”
Toward the entrance of the village stands a row of tiny homes and trailers that serve as the Community Inn, where anyone who wants to experience a night or two here can book a stay. Many times, people make a reservation without knowing what Community First is.
“What I love is our main customer base is from Airbnb,” says Barrett Yeager, innkeeper at the Community Inn. “I get to introduce people to the village that almost know nothing about it. Folks who normally wouldn’t see what’s going on here get to be introduced to that and hopefully have their views on homelessness completely turned around.”
That’s what happened to Kelley Gatewood. In July 2017, Gatewood, who was living in Dallas, randomly booked a weekend escape to Austin.
“I had no clue where I was staying,” Gatewood says. “I didn’t know anything about it other than what I saw on Airbnb.”
She instantly fell in love with Community First's atmosphere and soon submitted an application to become a missional, which is a person who is not homeless but chooses to rent a micro-home or RV on site and live there, too. There are currently dozens of missionals living at Community First, ranging from former lawyers to current tech executives who commute to work from the village each day.
“A lightbulb just went off in my head,” says Gatewood, who was accepted as a missional and moved to Community First in August 2018. A licensed massage therapist, she can frequently be found giving chair massages to her neighbors.
“I can’t imagine now living anywhere else,” she says.
A new life
In the three years since it opened, the neighborhood has seen everything from weddings to funerals.
The death part, says Taylor Graham, is important. At Community First, residents can choose to fill out paperwork stating that when they die, their ashes will be stored in an on-site columbarium.
“On the streets, if your friend dies, you just hear about it through the grapevine, and they’re just gone. There’s no ceremonial way to mourn and celebrate and love that person," Taylor Graham says. “Out here, we gather around the columbarium, or at the very least are hanging out together and sharing stories and laughing and crying. That is very reassuring and encouraging to those that are still here. None of us are getting out of here alive, but to know people are going to gather and share stories about you and remember you when you pass, it’s so encouraging.”
Floyd can relate — his best friend died on the streets. So when he saw his own daughter starting to get into what he called "a mess," he picked her up and moved her into Community First Village, too. Now she lives in an RV down the street, and the pair frequently enjoy dad-daughter dates.
“It’s a whole new start for me,” Floyd says. “I have the right combination of people around me. I can’t say I was an easy person to help, because I was old and in my ways, but they never gave up on me. I haven’t had that since I pulled the plug on my mother.”
The transition isn’t always easy, and life at the village isn’t always peaceful. Sometimes the police are called. Sometimes there are squabbles. But what the Grahams try to cultivate above anything else is an atmosphere of respect.
“Everybody in this community sees me bending over and picking up cigarette butts off the ground,” Alan Graham says. “That has inspired other people to bend over and pick up cigarette butts. It’s not a train wreck here, so people take pride in that.”
Floyd recently started using some of the wages he has earned from farming to purchase his own furniture for his RV, where he plans to stay indefinitely. Alan Graham says permanency is essential to what the village offers.
“Everybody’s got a phenomenal new chapter,” Graham says. “It’s not the new chapter that the majority of people want to see, because we live in a society that thinks we can fix and repair people, catch and release, that we bring people in, do all this to them, then push them out in six months, and they’re living in Pflugerville with a car note about to get married. These are the most vulnerable, broken, despised and outcast. We’re here to bring palliative relief to their suffering, which brings palliative relief to the community.”