25 years: Local non-profit is national model for tackling homelessness

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – On any given night, more than 1,000 people are sleeping on Austin streets.  Those numbers are coming from the latest point in time count from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).

For decades, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit based in Austin has grown into a national model for tackling homelessness and creating a new life for people who lived on the streets. This year, Mobile Loaves & Fishes is celebrating 25 years of service. 

During its existence, the non-profit has created a new pathway for homeless neighbors with affordable, permanent housing through Community First! Village, a 51-acre master planned development that offers a supportive community for women and men exiting chronic homelessness. 

Sitting on the front porch at a tiny home in Community First! Village, we found J.R. and Blair enjoying their Friday afternoon with sounds of the harmonica filling the air. 

Blair Racine is known as the Mayor of Community First! Village. 

“I talk to everybody, I’m a people person, that’s how I’m wired,” Racine explained. “These people know I love them and I’ll do anything for them.” 

In the middle of our interview, his phone rang, it was a neighbor asking him for help. He tells us he keeps his phone on 24/7, to ensure that he is always there for those who haven’t had the support they need. 

Racine recalled an experience with a neighbor who recently moved to Community First! Village, “I asked him what was on his mind and he said, ‘Blair, I can lock my door, no one is going to touch me tonight’. He’s some place safe, he’s got me; and that’s powerful because everyday I’m talking and helping them recover from.”  

Racine is a former real estate broker. He said he came to Austin to work with a partner he thought he could trust. Things didn’t go as planned. 

“We decided to do real estate in Austin and through financial moves, he destroyed me financially,” Racine said.  

He was homeless for almost four years, spending much of that time at The Arch in downtown Austin. 

“One of the guys said there is a bus going out to Community First! Village and there is one spot left and Alan happened to be out here that day,” Racine remembered. 

He’s talking about Alan Graham, the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Twenty-five years ago it was a food truck ministry looking to be part of a solution to a growing problem in cities across the U.S. – homelessness. Over the years, it has grown into a place Racine and Graham himself call home. 

“This is 399 square feet plus this beautiful deck you are sitting on, but this is home, this is where we want to be and it’s hard to explain, but it’s simple living,” Graham explained as we sat on his deck. 

To live at Community First! Village, according to the non-profit’s website, one must:  

  • Be chronically homeless, which is defined as living in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven, or an emergency shelter for at least one year (or four episodes within the past three years) and having at least one disability. 
  • Have been in Travis County for at least one year 
  • Have the ability to pay rent, which can include SSI, SSDI, working off-site, or on-site employment through Community Works 

It houses almost 350 people who were living on Austin streets. 

“The source and summit of this pandemic is the profound catastrophic loss of family, that is what Mobile Loaves & Fishes believes at the core of who we are,” Graham said. “I’ve said before that if you want to restore together, we have to live together, policy is not going to do it.” 

So instead of policy, their model is based on community. Community Works, a micro-enterprise program, allows neighbors to work in Genesis Gardens. It is a farming operation that provides food to the community. Neighbors can also work in the Art House, where they create ceramics, paintings, and jewelry. In 2022, through Community Works, neighbors earned a combined $1.5 million in “dignified income.” 

“It makes you feel like a human being again,” Ute Dittemer said.  

She and her husband experienced homelessness for almost a decade. They moved to Community First! Village in 2017. She has been working at the Art House while living there. 

“I don’t have to worry about where I go to sleep, I don’t have to worry about breaking any laws going to sleep anywhere at night. I can have an income simply from this place,” Dittemer said. 

She’s at the Art House for about five hours a day, painting and creating. 

“I made a chess game out of clay that I sold about three years ago, and it sold for a lot of money, and I was able to buy a car,” Dittemer said, “I’ve never had a car in my life.” 

It’s just one way she says her life has been transformed, like Racine. 

“To be in a place where I can do God’s work every daythis is where God put me, this is where I belong,” Racine said. 

As the number of those experiencing homelessness increases, Mobile Loaves & Fishes is expanding with Phase III and IV of their construction, adding almost 1400 homes.

The Community First! Village model has been replicated across the country. This includes The Field’s Edge in Midland. The founders spent time living at Community First! Village, participating in the four-month missional internship program in 2017. They started The Field’s Edge to replicate a tiny home community for the chronically homeless in Midland. The village sits on 23.5 acres and in addition to homes, there is a behavioral and physical healthcare clinic space, a market, and a multipurpose room.

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