Community First! Village is a 51-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness. A development of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, this residential program serves those who have been living on the streets. The program also encourages the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless.
Land was purchased and construction began in 2012. Many from Austin immediately volunteered to fund and build the tiny houses that make up much of the village. In late 2015, Covenant’s Men in the Word, our early morning men’s Bible study, built a tiny house in just three hours on a cold November morning.
Fast forward to June of 2019 and meet Ernest – the first and only inhabitant of the “Covenant Cottage.” Ernest, a 62-year-old man, has been living in the cottage for the last year and a half.
“My place is quiet and peaceful,” Ernest said, approaching his tiny house. “Look at where I’m at. I’m at the edge of everything. It’s a nice community. There are a lot of things going on.”
Entering his place, Ernest offers the quick tour. “I have a fridge, a microwave, a crockpot. There’s my closet. He pauses, and then continues, “This is the first place I ever had. I love the high ceiling on that side. It makes me feel like the place is real big.”
Ernest likes to watch the sun rise from his front porch. And, he likes to watch tv; Andy Griffith and other oldies are his favorite. “I got my house. I got my key. I got my TV. I feel lucky to be here.”
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, you can find Ernest working in the garden center. “I do the weeding. I harvest the vegetables,” Ernest said, adding that he starts working at 7:30 a.m. on those days and works until about 11.
“I like to work Saturdays,” Ernest said. “There are a lot of volunteers here. They work hard and they like to talk.”
Saturday is the day the village has a farmers’ market. Residents get to come and stock up on vegetables and eggs for the week. The eggs come from the 100 or so chickens onsite. Ernest’s first job at Community First was tending the chickens and the goats. He much prefers the gardening. “That was a lot of cleaning up,” he said.
No matter what he is doing, Thomas Robinson, Resident Care Administrative Assistant, said, “Ernest is the hardest worker out here.”
Every Thursday, a team from Steiner Ranch makes a meal for residents. When the group started three years ago, they served just 10 residents, the number of people who lived at the village at the time. That number has jumped to over 200, and still, the Steiner Ranch team hasn’t missed a week.
“They come out on Christmas, on Thanksgiving, in snow and rainstorms,” said Thomas, who was hired after he graduated from Mary Hardin Baylor last summer.
Another meal that brings the community together is stone soup day. “We get a pot going and everybody brings a vegetable to make soup to share,” Thomas said.
Although Ernest said he prefers to eat in his place. “My favorite thing to cook is meatloaf. It is good!”
Community First has much to offer. In addition to the more than 200 houses/RVs, the village has a blacksmith shop, a car care center, a woodworking shop, a glass blowing shop, they keep bees and more! They also have an outdoor amphitheater that was donated by Alamo Drafthouse. Every April, there is a competition for blacksmiths. “We had over 500 people come out just to watch the competition this spring,” Thomas said.
Community First! is nearly at capacity. In addition to the 170 (or so) residents, 40 missionaries live on sight. Mobile Loaves & Fishes started expanding Community Frist! Village last fall. Phase II adds an additional 24 acres, bringing the entire property to 51 total acres.
Once complete, nearly 500 formerly homeless individuals will be living in Community First!, representing about 40 percent of Austin’s chronically homeless population. And handful of the houses will be made with a 3-D printer, one of the first places in the United States to experiment with the technology.
Covenant, and specifically Men in the Word, has taken on the challenge to build two more houses for phase 2, said MitW leader Harold Skaggs. The group requested, and received, funding of $10,000 from the 2018 and 2019 budget, and the group will again match the funds.
“We are hoping to begin construction before the fall, but all is dependent upon the plans and approval of them by CommunityFirst!.
Upon finishing the construction all those years ago, Harold Skaggs, who led Men in the Word in the project said, “The guys really seemed to respond to something that was finite. We started with a bare slab and when we left, there was a little house. We finished in a short period of time and we had a sense of completeness,” Harold said. “Somebody’s gonna live here. They’ll be off the streets and will live in this snug little spot.”
That someone is Ernest and he is very happy.