The plight of the chronically homeless is one that for many decades, most of society has unfortunately shied away from. Individuals walking down the street will avert their eyes away from those whose bed is the sidewalk. City politicians make campaign promises to address the issue and throw money at it, but year after year the homeless numbers continue to rise with more tents appearing under highways or in busy areas of a downtown.
One non-profit organization in Austin, Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF), proved that a solution is possible. Director Layton Blaylock captures this ongoing story in Community First, A Home For The Homeless including the beauty of the people making it happen and this small town within a city that has blossomed.
Alan Graham, a more slight version of a jolly Santa Clause giving spirit, founded MLF as a way to feed the homeless from one food truck, which grew to a fleet of vehicles going all around the city. He and his team began to know and become friends with those on the streets, developing a deeper compassion for what led them to this position in their lives.
“Things happen to people,” explains Graham, and it can spiral one down a rabbit hole. Losing one’s job with no family to turn to for financial help after long-term unemployment. Living in a car after not being able to pay rent. With no address or ability to shower and have clean clothes for an interview thousands of individuals are caught in a Catch-22.
Graham knew he had to do more to make a real change. His dream became a reality as MLF broke ground in 2012 on a 27-acre master-plan community. This wasn’t just housing, but a thriving, local neighborhood where the chronically homeless could recapture their humanity, self-love, self-respect, and most important of all, discover and build a connection with others. The Community Village is their own place to call home where they are seen and heard as fellow humans on a daily basis.
At the beginning of the film we hear first-hand how one of the Village residents, John, had been living on his own since he was eight years old but still managed to go to school, selling newspapers before school to have some money to live. As an adult he spent time in the military, but the years of childhood neglect haunted him and addiction kept him on the streets.
Now in his 60’s, John is a contributing member of the community, “They make you feel wanted and that’s the nicest thing for me.”
Other residents share similar experiences, including how it took a period of adjustment to living in their own trailer or mini-home where they could truly relax and breathe, free from being on 24/7 alert or having to figure out where they were going to sleep.
It is the many layers of this community that is so impressive and inspiring.
Onsite health services are essential, but it is the programs that build self-worth that are just as important to leading a quality life.
This includes opportunities for employment in the onsite workshop, where residents make crafts and goods and then sell them in the community market.
The community garden is another way to be close to the earth, and working with the soil enables residents to feed their soul as much as their stomach, and with healthy, organic produce. The maintenance department goes from sun up to sun down, taking care of all aspects of the neighborhood and preparing for new builds on the property.
Job Fairs take place on a regular basis, and the onsite Community Inn, which is run as an Airbnb for visitors to Austin, allows residents learn the hospitality business first-hand.
These jobs enable them to earn money to pay rent and support themselves, which is so important to feeling of value. And their micro-businesses provide pride and ownership in something they themselves have created, spawning new identities for themselves while leaving the other identities behind.
The quality of life found has drawn other Austinites to give up their larger homes, scale back on what they own, and live with a smaller footprint but larger life as a fellow member of this close-knit Village. Many employees of MLF also live in the village, and love it. There are movie nights, and conversations on the porch. Pets of all kinds, shapes and sizes romp around the green space.
“It provides a different way to live our lives. All of us. Not just the chronically homeless, but all of us,” said Bethany Hubbard, the Community Corps. Director.
The Village’s multi-faceted program that has been built and nurtured since 2012 sets a high bar for homeless programs in other U.S. cities. Anyone who has a chance to see Blaylock’s film will see first-hand that giving a person shelter is only the first stop to enabling them to regain a new lease on their own life.
In Los Angeles, city’s voters passed two measures to fund initiatives that would first, provide quality shelter, and second, offer support and health services. In January I was part of the 150+ volunteers in the Hollywood area to conduct a Homeless Count for the 2019 census (in 2018 it was 50,000), which took place across all of L.A. over the course of a few days. It was the biggest turnout in the history of the count and was evidence that local citizens want to play a role in helping our neighbors regain their dignity and ability to start a new chapter in their lives. But there is still A LOT of work to do and a lot of learning on how many facets there are beyond housing and mental health that enable a person to get their life back.
The daily news alerts and the surreal chaos that surrounds us can cast a dark shadow on these current times, but thankfully their are filmmakers like Layton Blaylock who bring us heartwarming films that run deep with humanity while capturing real solutions to our society’s issues.
John, the Village resident who was so used to how he was treated for decades as a person living on the street, shares his life now where people see him as a fellow human being, “Everywhere I go people are calling me Sir and Mister. I’m still trying to get used to that one.”
The perception society has of the homeless needs to change. Alan Graham and his team who have built and continue to expand the Community First Village family are living, breathing examples of how change can happen in significant, life-changing ways. This is a model that I wish and hope more city governments and non-profits would see, learn, and understand.
In addition to the screenings of Community First, A Home for the Homeless on March 9, 201910:45am —11:49am, March 11, 20199:00pm —10:04pm, and March 16, 201912:30pm —1:34pm, there is also panel session, “Outsmarting Homelessness: 21st Century Solutions,” featuring Alan Graham from MLF, along with Kevin Price from Hearing the Homeless, Kerry O’Connor, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Austin, and Keith Anderson, CMO, Penny Inc.