Tag Archives: homelessness

Community First! Village in Austin, Texas

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Community First! Village in Austin, Texas

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.

America’s Refugees

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America’s Refugees

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.

Working Poor

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Working Poor

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 Floridathe 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.

Small Homes for Families

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Small Homes for Families

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.

Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon

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Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon

Last October I visited Dignity Village – an institutionalized homeless encampment just outside of Portland, Oregon. I had stumbled upon the encampment online, and I jumped at the opportunity to see Dignity Village with my own eyes when I realized that I would be traveling through the area.

Dignity Village is a city-ordained “campground” located on Sunderland Street in Northeast Portland. It has been at its current location for almost 15 years, but most of the residents of Portland have no idea that it exists. It is located near an industrial area in the parking lot of the city’s composting facility. I met a resident named Brian as we checked in at the security desk, and he toured me through the village to show me the amenities.

Brian explained that the “tiny houses” were built by churches and community organizations to accommodate the formerly homeless residents. The structures were built to be no larger than 10’ x 12’ so that building code regulations and permitting were unnecessary. There is no electricity in the houses, but propane heaters donated by the fire department kept the residents warm at night. Residents are required to pay $20 per month in rent, along with offering 10 hours of community service per week (this could include picking up trash, chopping firewood, or manning the security desk as Brian had been doing when I arrived). Electricity is available in the “common area,” along with wifi and cable television. Anyone, including non-residents, can visit this community space between 8 AM – 10 PM, to warm up, use the internet, or just hang out.

A sense of community existed in the village, which I believe is an essential element in the reintegration of marginalized groups into any society. In fact, the entire village started as a group of homeless individuals who banded together while struggling to survive the winter, by forming a tent city underneath an overpass in downtown Portland. Whether intentionally or not, this became the impetus for a movement that demanded the right to housing back in 2000. Eventually, thanks to the work of advocates and community stakeholders, the City of Portland agreed to lease the parking lot of their composting facility to the board of the 501c3 that governs Dignity Village.

The results have been incredible – a sense of community and participation in civic society that is unprecedented in any homeless shelter or section 8 housing, the formation of micro-businesses by residents, and a waiting list of other homeless individuals who would like to become a part of this community. “The five rules are all very basic; No violence, No theft, No alcohol/drugs, No constant disruptive behavior, and Everyone must contribute at least 10 hours per week to better the Village” 

It made me think: what are we waiting for? why can’t we build tiny houses to house the homeless now??  There must be something to this… I’m not saying that they have all the answers, but it seems like the rough draft of a beautiful masterpiece.