More than 250,000 lights flash in time with Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," framing eager shoppers in holiday sweaters who peruse ornaments, Mason jar cookie mixes, paintings, candles and hand-crafted wooden toys in the Advent Market. Nearby, a jubilant Santa rings a bell as he grins for the camera, a line of cherry-cheeked children forming to say their hellos and offer their wish lists.
Community First’s annual Village of Lights has become a holiday tradition for Austinites, but there's a secret agenda, too. These grounds are home to nearly 200 people who once were homeless, and everything raised during this four-night event will go directly to helping them earn a dignified income.
"We want people to be in the holiday spirit, but our larger vision is to empower the community around us into a lifestyle of service with the homeless," said Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which runs Community First Village, a micro-home community for men and women who are coming out of chronic homelessness. "In order to get people engaged out here, we need to attract them out here some way. What better way to do that than with an awesome light display in Central Texas, as unique as it gets, in the most talked about neighborhood in Austin?"
Homelessness has been a major topic this year in Austin as local leaders and state officials have sparred over how to manage the population of people experiencing homelessness and support Texans without homes. After the Austin City Council softened its regulations on panhandling and sitting and sleeping in public areas, Gov. Greg Abbott criticized local leaders and cleared homeless encampments under highways.
Community First organizers hope that the thousands of people they expect to attend the fourth annual Village of Lights, which started last weekend and continues Dec. 13-14, will leave with a better understanding of the issues facing people who are experiencing chronic homelessness and options for how to help. The Village of Lights is held entirely on the 27-acre Community First Village in Southeast Austin, where RVs and tiny homes offer affordable, permanent housing to 180 people. Community First is also working on a second phase that will add 24 more acres to its campus.
Ute Dittemer is one of the artists whose work is being showcased as part of the Village of Lights; an intricate hand-carved, 32-piece chess set made from local Balcones Dark clay that she spent six months creating is being auctioned off over the event’s four nights. The starting bid on her chess set is $10,000, placed by Austin billionaire and philanthropist John Paul DeJoria.
"It blows my mind," Dittemer said while looking fondly at the set during the Village of Lights kickoff last Friday. An accompanying book tells the story of each piece, including an "earnest young" French knight who goes by the nickname Micky and a Darth Vader-themed pawn who "does not do Empire battles anymore" and is "a secret admirer of the queen."
Dittemer, who spent a decade homeless along with her husband after he unexpectedly lost his job, said she’s always been an artist and continued to paint even when she didn’t have a home thanks to local programs such as Art from the Streets, which helps artists who are homeless create and sell their artwork. After Dittemer and her husband moved into an RV at Community First in 2017, she began working with clay in the on-site Art House. Because all Community First Village residents must pay rent, many earn their wages working on-site, from cleaning bathrooms to creating art to sell as part of its Community Works program, which helps residents find jobs that help them make an income and develop their skills.
"I saw people making stuff with clay and I wanted to try it," Dittemer said. "I liked it enough to keep at it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Practice, practice, practice."
Dittemer works in the Art House every weekday and said she has missed only one day of work over the past two years.
"I’ve got my dream job now. I love going to work every morning. It’s my go-to place," she said. "I take clay home and I work on it on the weekends. I do. I love it so much."
Dittemer has learned how to work with clay in part thanks to Helene Armitage, an Austin artist who was instrumental in creating the Art House at Community First.
"Ute is just such a treasure," Armitage said. "We put together this clay studio for people to make a dignified income, and to find someone like Ute. … She just carves. It's breathtaking. She is one of the most amazing artists I have ever worked with."
Aitchison said in 2019 the village’s Community Works program is poised to distribute more than $600,000 back to village residents who participate.
"That's not insignificant," Aitchison said. "We’re providing a means through which people can support individuals who have come up off the streets to help them make a living again."
All of the money raised by Dittemer’s chess set will go directly to her to help her to pay rent and other necessary expenses.
"It's very calming for me to know that I have a home, that I have a place where I can go and have privacy, because that's something you don’t get when you're homeless, that I have basic things like a shower or dishes I can wash, a stove I can cook on," she said. "If you can’t find a chance to get out of (homelessness), it’s very difficult. A lot of people try and get discouraged so they finally give up. But sometimes a miracle happens, just as you’re giving up, and you find something like this."