Already, this first week has been wonderful at my first stop, Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. Community First is so impressive because of the quantity and quality of the services they offer. Spread across 51 acres, they house more than 200 people consisting of around 40 missionaries (that have never been homeless) and 160 formerly homeless residents. They are currently working on expanding to welcome 300 more residents. Residents are allowed to stay as long as they can pay the rent, which varies from $250-500 a month. Besides offering houses, Community First! Village has a health clinic, blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, automotive shop, barber shop, art studio, outdoor movie theatre, bed & breakfast, multiple sanctuaries and prayer rooms, organic garden, livestock, general store, and communal laundry, shower, and bath facilities. What struck my the most about the homes is the personalization that each has. The only visible, uniform design element is that each has a porch for neighbors to socialize on.
I was able to interview two of the staff members that are focused on the replication of Community First! Village across the country. I also spent a day with a missionary as we walked his dog and visited every aspect of the community. I went on runs to the food pantry, where a church had fed 9,800 people in the past month, 5 days a week, with no cost to the homeless. I worked in the gardens alongside a resident who had been homeless for years but was excited because he was starting a screen-printed t-shirt enterprise and Dell, the computer-technology company, had contacted him about making hundreds of shirts. I listened to a lady who worked at the Community Inn Bed & Breakfast where she made sure all of the rooms were ready before guests arrived. She spoke so passionately about her pride and the standards to which she holds herself when making sure each room is spotless. I heard many residents talk about their grandkids, children, and family coming to visit them now that they had a home. I saw smiles, heard laughter, and experienced love as I was welcomed into homes for meals, conversations, and understanding.
I had done quite a bit of research on Community First! Village before visiting and had known that they offered quite a bit but seeing it in person was nothing short of awesome. One of the neatest things I saw this week was a House Blessing, where two new residents were welcomed into their new homes. The ceremony consisted of prayers, scriptures, hymns, and gifts (it is a tradition that each new neighbor has a quilt made specifically for them). Then everyone goes and lays their hand on the homes and gives their blessing, welcoming the new resident home. It was moving to see the grace and gratitude that flowed from the event.
Interestingly, most of the village’s residents are not religious, and the village does not ban the use of alcohol or drugs. One missionary told me that the village would not have as many residents if everybody was forced to be clean, that sobriety had to be the choice of the individual. The same can be said of religion. The village will always have the resources available, but the resident will have to make their own choice to use them. The main non-negotiable commitment that each resident has to uphold is their rent.
Throughout the week, I was met with constant surprise of how young I was compared to everyone else at the village. I was called ‘kid’ and ‘baby’ more times than I care to count (though let it be known that I have voted, registered for the draft, and paid taxes!); the average age of the residents was at least twice the age that I am. This youthfulness lead many to believe I was either courageous or stupid to be doing this journey on my own – I’m not sure I’ll know which one until I’m done – but they were still appreciative to see me doing this work.
As far as living out of the car goes, it has had its moments. Pace Bend, a local county park and campground, has been where I set up camp each night. The Texas heat has not been kind to the temperature of an all-black vehicle. The anxiety of having everything I belong in my car while I’m in the city can also be unnerving. However, the convenience of having everything within reaching distance has been phenomenal!
Because Pace Bend does not have Wi-Fi, I have spent many hours at different Austin Public Library branches. Oftentimes, I’m in the company of the homeless who enjoy a bathroom, air conditioning, computers, and books.
Right now, I can tell that I do not feel at home. Thinking about it, it has been a while since I have truly felt settled. Leaving for college, Duke quickly became one of my homes, but sharing a dorm room, living space, and bathrooms never offered the quiet and solitude that I would like to enjoy. Duke certainly has a community atmosphere that is rewarding, but isolation can be needed. I could not truly settle. To me, settling is where I can leave my laptop in the living room and not have to worry about it being stolen, can forget about the laundry and know that it will be in the dryer when I return, or can put my food in the refrigerator without having to aggressively write my name on it. I don’t mind sharing, but I desire the peace that having one’s own space brings. Once the spring semester ended, I was on a trip where I shared a hotel room. Lovely company, but again, not settled. And now I have been off on this summer work. I make camp every night and tear down camp every night. I am not settled and I am certainly not home.