Tag Archives: village

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.

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There’s No Place Like Home

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There’s No Place Like Home

What if you could never go home? Or even see your family again except in Facebook pictures? I’m contemplating this on my flight home because this weekend I met a refugee from Syria in New York. He moved to the U.S. a few months ago, and he will never be able to return. Not just because of the civil war or violence that is ongoing, but also because he is gay. He is not homeless in the traditional sense; but if you consider the place where your family, relatives and loved ones reside as your home, then he is without a home.

His culture’s inability to accept homosexuality did not change the fact that he seems to love his home very much. He talked about the food from Syria with passion, as he discussed the different taste of U.S. hummus with our Israeli host. He described the different varieties of pomegranates in his homeland with a hunger in his eyes that expressed his longing.

Although his parents may never know or understand his sexual preference, he still loves and misses them very much. He told me that he would check his phone constantly because he never knew when his relatives would have Internet access to call, and he needed to be able to answer in case they got a chance. Communication was exceptionally urgent recently, as my friend’s mother had told him that Russian troops were just stationed in their village. He explained that this is a very bad sign and he feared for the lives of his family if the village were bombed. He was so worried that he hadn’t been able to sleep for 12 days since.

I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like to be unable to return to Belize, to never see Mamita again, or to only see my little cousins grow up in pictures. It’s hard enough to see my grandparents aging, but to fear that an off-target bomb could reduce my entire family to “collateral damage” in a moment’s notice? I would not be able to sleep either.

Meanwhile, across town, the leaders of almost every country in the world were in Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. I cannot understand how Americans, Israelis and Syrians can eat dinner together in peace, but our governments cannot take the time to ensure the safety of entire nations by resolving these issues themselves. Or at least get together over dinner and agree to stop supplying weapons to the governments and rebel groups that insist on causing problems. Real lives hang in the balance, and refugee crises can be prevented by keeping residents safe at home.

We discussed many things that night, including the geopolitical climate in the Middle East. We agreed that the conflicts were about power and resources, not religion like so many believe. We thought that the world would be a better place without governments or borders to separate the individuals that live within these artificial lines that some empires arbitrarily sketched on a map way back when. Just IMAGINE… If we were all citizens of the world instead of countries. Then a man could love a man, a Palestinian could love an Israeli, and everyone could worship the Creator in his or her own way; without arguing over who gets to sit at the UN’s table.

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.

Mayan Village

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Mayan Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala to bare witness to the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

I flew into Guatemala City on a Monday, and a missionary couple picked me up. Within an hour of being in the country, we drove over a bridge with armed policemen guarding each end of it. This didn’t seem abnormal until someone pointed out that in the previous two weeks, three different people had stopped cars in the middle of the bridge and jumped over the guard rail into the ravine below. The police were there to prevent another incident, or maybe just to move any empty cars that might cause traffic jams.

We drove out of the capitol, winding around S-curved mountain roads and suddenly I saw a crippled man using his arms to pull himself into the road. I shrieked, and the driver managed to swerve around him. His skin was darkly tanned, and it was obvious that he had spent most of his life in the sun. I couldn’t believe that anyone would hope to die like that.

We ended up in a town called Rio Dulce, and stayed overnight near the river. The next day we took a two hour boat ride up a tributary to visit a rural village near Castulo Creek. A decrepit wooden house sat in the middle of a farm yard on the bank, while turkeys, chickens and horses roamed around. Across the yard, a wooden bridge stretched over a swamp and into a cow pasture, where a herd of bulls grazed at the bottom of a steep hill. It was still the dry season, but there was already muddy water at both ends of the bridge from an early rain. I learned that the first time my hosts visited this village; they had to wade waist-deep through these swampy grasses to reach the hills. They built the bridge not too long before, with the help of a team of volunteers.

We hiked up the hill and 20 minutes into the jungle before reaching a village named Castulo, where the residents lived the same way that Mayan villagers have for centuries. The first time my missionary friends arrived in Castulo in the 1990s, the villagers had never seen anyone as pale as them. At that point in time, the death rate was 50% because the villagers were dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water. My hosts showed them how to clean the water to make it drinkable, and helped them re-hydrate with a sugar-saline mixture. No one died after that.

The village was centrally planned around a soccer field in front of a school house that a missionary team built. The children learned their own Mayan dialect, as well as some Spanish. Education is their only chance to improve their livelihoods, possibly move away someday, or make a better life for future generations. Everyone in the village gathered to meet us at the 2-room school house. The students were so excited to take a break and play, and some of the kids brought us baby Amazon yellow-head parrots to hold.

Families live in thatched roof huts made with cahoon palm tree frons for roofs and bamboo as walls. The floors are dirt, and the typical ‘stove’ is an open-fire hearth in the middle of the hut. Their diets consist primarily of corn tortillas, which is not enough to sustain a person. Women use a metate (mealing stone) to grind corn into flour that they use for dough. Tortillas are flattened and baked over the hearth on a flat piece of aluminum. The village has no electricity, but a team of volunteers had built a new hand-pump well.

Idealistically, I thought that if I were Guatemalan, I would be more content to grow up insulated in Castulo than in the smoggy, over-crowded capitol. It seemed to me that without electricity, TV, or radio; people must be happier there. Surely, no one committed suicide in Castulo? Of course, I was wrong and my host told me that 2 people had chosen to take their lives since he had been to Castulo. One was a girl who drank plant fertilizer after fighting with her boyfriend. The other was a heart-broken boy. Before the end of the trip, I received notice that my cousin had killed himself and his ex wife had been found dead. I started summer school the day after I returned, and went to the funeral the following weekend.