Keep Austin Weird. That’s the tagline for the Capitol of Texas, which happens to be one of the trendiest places to live according to the mass movement of techies and young urban professionals from basically everywhere. This culture is reflected in the city’s bars and nightlife; incorporating open air patios, food trucks, roof tops bars and live music into many public spaces. Everything from the breweries, to the gastropubs, to the graffiti art on the walls simply beams with authenticity. It is no surprise that this city has a unique and authentic way of taking care of its homeless residents as well.
Community First! Village is a community of affordable tiny houses for chronically homeless, disabled residents in East Austin. It is managed by the non for profit food truck ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes that collaborated with businesses, non profits and foundations to provide this space for the most vulnerable members of their community. Amenities include outdoor kitchen spaces, public restrooms, laundry facility, a community market, open air cinema, workshop, tool bank and art gallery. A community works program provides micro-enterprise opportunities; and sustainability projects include community gardens (including permaculture), a chicken operation, bee hives producing fresh honey, and aquaponics. Public transportation provides access to the city via a bus route that stops on property.
The village is a “27-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.” The homes on their property provide a diverse pallet of affordable housing options, ranging from camping shelters, to micro homes with public restroom facilities, mobile homes with indoor plumbing, and even tepees (the original form of affordable housing). The structures are provided by local church groups, mission groups, the building community, and other local businesses and organizations. The residents who inhabit these homes are screened through a coordinated entry system, to make sure that the most at-risk of Austin’s homeless residents have access to housing first. Some may receive HUD or other government entitlements, while all residents pay rent on a sliding scale. There are also “missional” residents who live there, to be the community friends and good neighbors that formerly homeless, disabled residents need as a support system of people who love and care for them.
A medical facility provides onsite care for physical health screenings as well as case management through Austin Travis County Integral Care for residents affected by behavioral health and developmental and/or intellectual challenges. This is key to making this development successful as a permanent supportive housing community for chronically homeless individuals. It is also the feature that distinguishes Community First! Village as a Permanent Supportive Housing community, as opposed to self governing shanty towns such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. Austin has definitely thought this through in a way that fills in all of the gaps left by Portland’s project, yet maintains the character and authenticity of the community. It is so inspiring to see how this community cared enough to come together to build a community that is safe and affordable for those who need it most. I can’t help but think what we could do for homeless families and the working poor, with just a little more forethought.
With the shortage of affordable housing in the United States and the high cost of development, it is simply not profitable to build housing for extremely low income renters (those making 30% or less of the area median income). Even with vouchers and tax credits from the government, it is still not affordable to build affordable housing that would cost $434 per month in Orange County. Micro-housing and tiny homes could provide an adequate and unique approach to increasing the inventory of affordable housing for families, simply by adding indoor plumbing to the designs I saw in Austin. A community-wide effort is all that it would take to complete this equation.
Seventy-five percent of extremely low income families cannot find affordable rental housing, but it’s not for lack of effort (iii). Rather, a deficit of affordable housing leaves more than 10 million U.S. families either stranded or teetering on the edge of homelessness. This is particularly common in Florida, where only 22 units of affordable housing are available per 100 extremely low income families (6). Regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that increasing the inventory of affordable rental housing is a prerequisite for ending homelessness and giving hope to America’s refugees – extremely low income families making less than 30% of the average median income (1).
“Affordable housing” is defined as housing that costs 30% or less of a person’s monthly income. A household that spends more than 30% of their income on housing and utility costs is considered “housing burdened” and at risk of becoming homeless. HUD Secretary Julian Castro states that “there is a shortage of 7.2 million affordable housing units for the nation’s more than 10 million extremely low income families.” The direct result is that 75% of these families are forced to pay over 50% of their wages on rent, making them severely cost burdened.
Eventually, this burden will catch up with them. A missed paycheck or medical emergency might be the the straw that breaks the camels back, as these families are forced to make hard choices and compromises to make ends meet. Necessary medications are foregone, payday loans taken out, or credit cards maxed out with unsustainable debt. The consequences of these choices inevitably lead to a Catch 22 with no way out besides shelters, doubling up, living in motel rooms, sleeping in cars, or worse – becoming homeless. And in Central Florida, one in every 50 families and one in every 17 children will experience homelessness in the course of a year (45).
These extremely low income families are the working poor. They are the subject of the Heart of Florida United Way’s A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report, which details the struggles of Floridians trying to survive with only the most basic necessities. According to this report, the Household Survival Budget for a family with 2 children is $47,484; which only includes Housing, Child care, Food, Transportation, Health Care, and 10% Miscellaneous (i.e. cell phone expenses). However, the median family income is $45,040 per year. It is estimated that 3.2 million households, or 45% of total households in Florida, are struggling to afford these necessities (4).
Add to this equation wage stagnation and the fact that only 22 units of affordable housing exist per 100 extremely low income families; it’s no wonder that nearly 70,000 homeless youth were enrolled in Florida’s schools in 2013. That is, 18 % of the Nation’s homeless school-aged children live in Florida (7). The psychological, nutritional and academic consequences for these students are the only part of this that adds up, concomitantly increasing the costs of public education, social services, and future prison expenses in the worst case scenarios. But most importantly, even the brightest children may be robbed of the chance to go on to lead healthy, balanced, and productive lives. Whether your political affiliations would have you fix this by increasing the minimum wage or not, we can all agree that there is a deficit of housing that is both affordable and available. Increasing this inventory is a public good and worthwhile investment in preventing family homelessness.
Imagine what it’s like to raise your family in a motel. The academic, nutritional and social consequences for children abound. It’s only a step above homelessness, but so many are cycling through seedy motel rooms because of the lack of affordable housing in Central Florida… Yesterday, my friend Jen and I volunteered to survey the occupants of some of these motels. We met both families and individuals with interesting stories of how they ended up in this situation, and most interestingly – they were all employed. I’ll share a few of their stories here.
First we met Mr. Ulrie, who was a Vietnam war Veteran that had worked for the IRS for fifteen years before moving to Central Florida. He now works full-time at a popular hotel chain, but has lived in the motel where we met him for the past 3 years. He swore to us that he was not on drugs. He had just returned from his shift and was sipping a Bud Light. “This is my only drug,” he said as he tapped the can. Because of health problems, he hadn’t been able to work for a month and that’s how he ended up in a motel. He’s been on a waiting list for an apartment complex down the street, but they won’t call because he has an eviction on his record.
Next, we met Lexi who was living in a motel room with 4 children and her significant other. Her one year old little boy chased an inflatable ball outside the room as we asked her a few questions “to help us do a better job with programs and services for people without stable, permanent housing.” She was so grateful – you could see it in her eyes as she said it was a “really good thing that y’all are doing.” She was 20 years old with two small children, and raising her boyfriend’s teenage sons as well. She worked part time as a waitress, and she guessed that they had lived in 20 different motels in the area, also because of past evictions. She was still so young herself, but as a product of the Department of Children & Families, she had no other family or support system to rely on.
Similarly, Chayew did not have any family to rely on either. All of his relatives had died from alcoholism, but he said he had been sober for 20 years. He was a Native American from the Seminole tribe, and he didn’t even want to talk to us because he was used to the government wasting his time. After a bit of coaxing, he opened the door and came out to share his story. He was a product of the Government Boarding Schools Program, and he said he had lived in every motel along the I92 corridor where we were surveying. He called his motel room his “kingdom” then pointed to an old van in the parking lot, which also sometimes served as his “kingdom.” He had been working as a plasterer at a local theme park, but was suddenly out of work. He might end up sleeping in his van or in the woods nearby soon.
We met another man named James, who also worked full time in construction and didn’t make enough money to afford a security deposit, on top of first and last month’s rent at an apartment. This was typical of most. Someone even stated that the price of renting was so high that you might as well buy a house. While unemployment is at an all-time low in Florida, the median price of housing is rising; and this leaves many of the working poor with few options other than to throw away the little money they have on rent, or live in these motels. In the worst case scenario, families end up living in their cars or even in the woods.
In the best cases, they end up in these shady motels, where their children might witness some of the most hopeless forms of human activity from a young age. And as Lexi’s case shows, placing these children in DCF might only perpetuate this cycle. The amount of strain that living in these close quarters can put on a relationship or family dynamic is bad enough on its own. And the degree that this kind of environment can set back a school-aged child is catastrophic to their future development. Something needs to be done. Giving these families affordable housing options is the only way to give their children the equal opportunity that they deserve to go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Whether privately or publicly funded, they need affordable housing now.
Today is my parents’ 31st anniversary. They first met because of a key lime pie. The setting was Southern Belize, where my mother was living with a Catholic nun and teaching home economic skills to Mayan Indian women. My dad was living just one village away in Big Falls running crews at his parents’ saw mill. The first time she saw him, he was erecting a radio tower at the age of fourteen. No one could compare. He was so mature for his age, but still she was cautious because she’d had her heart broken before.
They finally interacted one day because my grandmother wanted to bake a key lime pie, so she sent my dad to the nun’s house to trade eggs for key limes from their tree. The nun wasn’t home, so my mother answered the door when he arrived. She wished he’d go away, but felt obligated to help him. As they picked the key limes together, he spoke to her and she laughed because he is a total ham. He eventually asked her to go with him to a dance at the community center that weekend, so she said yes. They have been together 37 years since.
At first, my mother didn’t want to pursue a relationship with my dad. He would throw flowers at the car as she rode by, but still she wouldn’t budge. He even bought her a ring with a tiny diamond in it. Sister Marianne Joseph wanted my mother to become a nun, and she didn’t want her to have anything to do with my father. She made her return the ring three times. And even today, the Sister blatantly states, “This is one marriage I never expected to work out.” For a whole year, my father kissed the dimple on my mother’s cheek without the least bit of encouragement. And finally, she fell for him when she was about to leave for nursing school in Belize City.
For years, they dated long distance. He would ride along on sugar cane trucks, or any chance at transportation he got, to visit her in the city – on treacherous roads that were so primitive, they flooded between rivers in the rainy season. She gave him back his ring so many times, but still he persisted. Even when she tried to pawn him off on her friends, he always came back, and the ring always returned with him. When I was little, I would wear this ring whenever my mother would let me, just hoping that I would have a story like theirs someday.
When I graduated from college, I decided to move to Belize. Partly because I wanted to become a dive instructor, learn about a developing country, and volunteer; and partly because I had this romantic notion that I would meet someone in the jungle who would love me as much as my Dad loves my Mom. But I guess we’ll see how my story plays out.
On my first day of kindergarten, I came home from school crying because I didn’t how to read. When I had asked my parents when I would be able to read like my older sister, they had said ‘kindergarten’ and I thought that meant immediately, on the first day. I was so disappointed to know that there was no magical trick that enabled me to read by virtue of being in Kindergarten. But by Christmas of that school year, I knew how to read books. By 4th grade, I was reading at a 9th grade reading level and I still like to read novels when I have time. However, so many children never reach full proficiency in reading by 4th grade, and will never enjoy school because of this disadvantage.
On a recent Facebook post about adult illiteracy, a friend asked me why I think it is that so many children do no learn to read in school and need remedial tutoring. I told her that I think it’s because of the lack of resources to so many single mothers who are working so hard to support their families. In fact, when I was living in Central America, I had a friend who fit this exact mold. Her son Jared was in Standard 1 (about 3rd grade) and he had never mastered basic phonics. His mother managed a hotel, owned her own business, and had two other children to care for. Jared was lost in the chaos of her life, as are most middle children. His grandmother watched him after school, and the group tutoring sessions he went to simply weren’t enough.
I started tutoring Jared 3 times a week after work, because he had fallen so far behind that he might be held back. Some thought that he might be disabled, because he would just stare at his tests. But really, I’m pretty sure that it was because he just couldn’t read them. Word problems in math were impossible for him too, because he couldn’t read. Taking notes from the blackboard was a jumble of confusion. And reading comprehension was simply out of his league. We began working together using hooked on phonics. After taking time to go back to the basics, Jared eventually began to pass his spelling tests. We were reading small books together by the time I left in December, and it was so hard to leave knowing that his mother would not have time to continue his tutoring.
There are so many Jareds in the school system in the United States, with single mothers who struggle to keep their families housed. They may not receive child support, might be working three jobs, and have zero spare time. It seems impossible to prioritize reading with their kids,when they are struggling so hard to survive. And their children will most likely never excel in school, if they don’t have a basic understanding of phonics before they reach that decisive age. It’s literally sink or swim. As one teacher in Orlando puts it: “Lack of access to quality education – you might as well be drowning in a pool.” Now that is something to cry about.
Today is May Day or International Workers’ Day in most other countries except for the United States, where “Labor Day” is celebrated on the first Monday of September. This is ironic because International Workers’ Day actually began in the United States on May 1, 1886 when 300,000 workers from 13,000 businesses across the United States walked out on their jobs to demand an eight hour work day without a cut in pay. This led to violence and retribution from industrialists and the ruling class, and Labor Day was eventually established in September as a day “to celebrate labor.” But in reality, it is a day to separate labor because nothing scares governments more than the thought that one holiday could be the unifying impetus that brings together International Workers of the World to Unite. And the Red Scare’s legacy, in its elimination of this story from our history books, continues to weigh heavily on the backs of soldiers, workers, and the poor.
At present, things have changed greatly since 1886. People still work over eight hours each day, but they are asked to sign contracts that sell their personal lives in exchange for a salary instead. The federal government is still dominated by lobbying groups connected to large industrial concerns including the oil industry, defense contracting, and especially international finance. The recent financial crisis in 2007 and the ensuing Arab Spring, M15, and Occupy Movements across the world are the closest that international workers have ever come to uniting. But because of the lack of leadership and real understanding by the common man about what exactly needed to be changed and how, these movements lost their voice by not coming together to make a common demand.
This brings into question a statement by Diego Rivera on this mural (pictured) that was chipped out of Rockefeller Center: “The liberation of the workers may only be the work of the laborers themselves.” But are the workers educated enough to liberate themselves? Do future workers graduate from high school with an education that equips them to understand the complexities of our interdependent world? Are they enabled to make good decisions when electing our future leaders, let alone make their own financial decisions? For me, and in light of the soundbites that I accidentally hear from the current Presidential debates, the answer is no. They are not. And as a believer in the potential for art and culture to produce real social change, I would go so far as to state that Diego Rivera actually did us a disservice by not producing the fresco that he was originally contracted to paint in Rockefeller Center. He missed an opportunity to unite international workers of the world with the people who want to help them most, the industrialists, financiers, and business class.
Diego Rivera’s mural was chipped out of the wall at Rockefeller Center, due to its strongly communist overtones because he succumbed to peer pressure by his contemporaries who called him a sellout for painting for the Rockefellers. The fresco he painted, with a portrait of Lenin and an unflattering depiction of Rockefeller Sr., is much different from the painting that he originally proposed. And Rivera expert Linda Downs explains the unifying message of the original sketches: “He had this vision of the importance of technology in the future and the hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general … It was a very hopeful mural.” The proposed fresco, as depicted in his sketches, remains a missing piece of history that could have depicted hope, and possibly instigated collaboration amongst these disparate classes that are hardly ever brought together by any networking group or chamber of commerce.
But the frequent inability of revolutionaries and politicians to collaborate with their contemporaries continues to weigh heavily on the working man’s back. Their lofty goals and ideals are incapable of translating into real change that will further the best interests of everyone, not just either the workers or the ruling class. When international workers of the world do unite, whether behind a protest like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement in 2011, or behind a bigoted billionaire running for the U.S. Presidency; the results tend to be detrimental to societies at large. Just look at Lybia, Egypt or Germany after World War II. A lack of access to quality education continues to oppress so many in the United States who are not given an equal opportunity to succeed. But beyond quality education, the real problem is that our true history is not taught to children at all. Like the celebration of Labor Day, so many other holidays and story tales obfuscate the truth behind our history. And this makes us doomed to repeat it.
Last year there was a tiny house exhibit at Central Florida Earth Day 2015. Since I had just visited Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, I naturally wanted to visit. And I took my grandmother with me for a day of quality time strolling around Lake Eola. My preconceived notions led me to believe that the tiny homes would be ideal for chronically homeless individuals; but my grandmother’s stories changed my perspective. They led me to believe that small homes would be perfect for housing homeless families, victims of domestic abuse, single mothers with children, and especially to provide affordable housing for the working poor in general.
While we were looking at one tiny houses that looked like a doll house, Mamita surprised me by explaining that she had raised four children in a room half as small. She would swing two babies in hammocks, while two children slept in bed with her. Some of her children were already grown, and occasionally her drunken husband would come home to rape and impregnate her again. So, sometimes there would be as many as six people in this tiny shack. She would cook on a fire hearth stove in the corner of the room.
Mamita told me about the struggle that was her life – including some stories that I already knew, but still I always listen. She worked as a nanny for a little girl with Down’s syndrome during the day, and sold bus and boledo (lottery) tickets at the depot in the mornings and evenings. Then she would stay up until 12 am hand scrubbing sheets and laundry for a shilling ($0.25) a piece. She stayed up even later to cook food for her children to eat the next day, then woke up at 5:00 am to fold laundry and do it all again. I don’t think she even had days off.
Being the type of person who loves to sleep, I didn’t understand how she could even function on such little sleep. But this is how she raised ten children – in a tiny house, with an abusive alcoholic husband, who was only there some of the time and never helped. My perspective on small homes for the homeless was forever changed that day, as I realized that these structures needed to be so much more than just “better than being homeless.” They needed to be built so well that I would be happy for my grandmother to raise my mother there, and for other working mothers to be able to raise their children out of poverty. They should set a standard of excellence that people will want to see and replicate.
I’m really looking forward to my grandmother visiting again next month. I can’t wait to spend time with her and just listen to her stories. She is such a strong little lady. She will be 86 this year, and she continues to inspire me to be the woman I am today. I am so blessed to have her in my life, and I can’t wait to show her the New Dignity Small Home that my team is building as an affordable housing model.
In 2008, I had a life-changing experience in Thailand while visiting an NGO that serves Burmese refugee children who are at-risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. I was in town called Mae Sot, where many Karen Burmese had emigrated to escape civil war and ethnic cleansing in Burma. It was just after cyclone Nargis had decimated Burma’s delta region, and the Burmese army was using intimidation tactics to remove the Karen from the most fertile region in the country. Many had emigrated across the border to Mae Sot to avoid violence from the conflict that is the ‘longest civil war in the world.’
One day, we visited a Burmese refugee camp near the border, a few hours from town. Nearly 50,000 Karen Burmese lived in this camp in houses made of leaves with bamboo stilts that elevated them above the ground. The structures dotted the side of a hill next to a mountain range that acted as the geographic boundary between Thailand and Burma. If I didn’t know we were in a refugee camp, I would have thought we were in a scene from a movie. I quickly returned to reality when someone mentioned that there was still fighting occasionally, just on the other side of the mountain.
We climbed down a hill and thorugh a winding path to get to an orphanage in the camp, where an ex-military general and his wife cared for children whose parents had died in the war. We were treated as honored guests and given delicious food. Although we knew they did not have much to spare (the purpose of the trip had been to bring them food – illegally), it would have been rude for us to refuse their hospitality.
The children sang for us, as we sat Indian-style on the bamboo floor, and I learned that their parents had died in the civil war while fighting to give them a place to live. Now they were stuck in limbo in this refugee camp, unable to be adopted because they did not have documentation from Burma or from Thailand. I learned that the Karen Burmese were being ethnically cleansed because of territorial disputes between their tribe and the Burmans, who controlled the national government and the army at the end of World War II. The Karen leaders had been promised self-determination while they fought alongside the British against the Japanese; but, much like the failure of the McMahon Hussein Correspondence in the Middle East, wartime promises meant nothing after the troops went home.
When I went back to school after that summer, I changed my major from Health Science to undecided because I wanted to do something that would help refugees or alleviate the hardships that they faced. Eventually, I chose Political Science so that I could focus on International Relations. The following three years, I studied genocide and ethnic cleansing in Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. I also focused on War & Peace in World Politics, Security Studies, and International Political Economy. I still think about these children, their stories, and my experiences in Thailand all the time.