Religion & Liberty Online

Community first! Helping the homeless through community development

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In Austin, Texas, the organization Mobile Loaves & Fishes has started a new program for the homeless: Community First! a village of tiny houses and other small domiciles. Lee Morgan of the New York Daily News reported recently,

A life of relative luxury awaits homeless people in Texas with the construction of a new gated neighborhood featuring a garden, drive-in theater and air stream motel.

Hundreds of down-and-outs in east Austin will have the chance to get back on their feet by moving into the pioneering Community First Village.

Residents will have to work and pay a minimal rent to be able to stay at the compound, which will be nestled in 27 acres of land east of U.S. Highway 183.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes is explicitly motivated by Christian principles and has been working with the homeless in Austin since the mid-1990s. The webpage for Community First! even quotes Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and take care of it.” Their work in the past has involved not only feeding the homeless with their food trucks but helping them find employment, obtain upward mobility, and shelter.

In my recent Acton Commentary, “Solar-Powered Simplicity: A First World Luxury,” I briefly highlighted the tiny house movement, a trend in the U.S. of people building and living in tiny homes. Many people are attracted to the simplicity and eco-friendly consumption levels of such small living. Others in the world, however, do not live small as a luxury:

Yet there are many today who do not live in tiny houses by choice but through the necessity of crushing poverty. These houses are not the quaint adventure of youthful, childless couples but often the only shelter for large, extended families. They are not solar-powered or, for that matter, powered at all.

Community First! is doing something remarkable in that they are connecting those who have no homes in the first world — in this case Austin — with this comparatively low-cost, yet high quality, housing.

The goal of Community First! is to build a village of these small, affordable homes including a chapel, community garden, workshop, and medical facilities on site. “Like us, [the homeless] are God’s beautiful but broken children, God’s estranged family,” says one of the founders in their promotional video.

Broken families are the top cause of homelessness — the homeless are people, for all varieties of reasons, who have nowhere to turn, no support system. But like everyone else, they too are created in the image of God, created for faith, fellowship, and flourishing. Community First! takes a holistic approach to serving the homeless, understanding additionally that having work to do and bills to pay can be dignifying. After all, God made us to cultivate and care for the world he has made. Work is and ought to be a good thing. AEI’s Arthur Brooks has even recently argued in the New York Times that earned success in one’s work is a key factor in happiness.

In embracing this perspective, Community First! offers a way not only to meet basic needs of the poor, but to help them break out of a cycle of many costly programs and experience true human flourishing. Kelly McCarthy comments on this in her own post on the ministry:

Supporter Alan Graham, of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, notes that the price of not housing these folks costs taxpayers about $10 million a year, not to mention the emotional and psychological tolls on the homeless themselves. Graham says that, for the most part, local residents seem to be in favor of the project, “We haven’t converted everybody, but when people come out here they go, ‘Oh!’ They see a chapel; they see medical and vocational services on site, and they learn that residents will not live there for free; they’ll pay a monthly rent.”

Furthermore, such innovative and dignifying efforts at poverty alleviation are themselves examples of people using the creativity God has given them in order to serve the good of others. We’ll see how the effort pans out, but the idea, at least, seems laudable to me.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.