"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Jun 18, 2017

A Homeless Oasis in Texas

So I’m sitting in Arizona during my final week of a month-long stay in Wickenburg, wondering where I should wander next, when one Googling eye after another followed an on-line trail leading to Workamper.com, a great resource for RV-ers looking to work or volunteer in exchange for a place to park their rig. Since I gave up my monthly space last year when I left to visit Mom, and because it’s summertime and the Snow-birds have flown north, the chances of me finding a place to park in my home-of-record Oregon are slim to none.  Briefly, the reason is because my RV is too old (1992) to be accepted in an ever-increasing number of RV parks for long-term 30 days or more parking. This is due in large part to the increasing popularity of road trips and tiny houses which I won’t go into it here, but if you’re interested in more info please read my piece questioning whether camping has become elitist.

I flipped my proverbial wig when I saw a call for Workampers needed at Community First! Village and I immediately wrote to volunteer on their 27 acre oasis. Their mission statement includes, "...provide affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas."  An adjacent 25 acres will house Phase 2. 

Dodging gale force winds, lightening strikes and rattlers we made our way through west Texas to Austin and I’ve been here just over 2 weeks. That's certainly not enough time to fully comprehend all the ins and outs (not that it's my business), but I think it's long enough to render a few impressions. And since the place must really be seen to be appreciated, I’ll take you along on our morning walk.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes is how Alan and Trisha Graham began their dream, delivering food to the homeless and no doubt planning how they could improve the situations of too-many locals down on their luck. What they have built here on the outskirts of the city is not just another housing project, but a community in which I felt a part within 24 hours. Please visit their website to learn more accurate details, but then be sure to return to read my impressions.

Quite honestly, I didn’t realize how isolated I'd become until people began introducing themselves, inviting me to social gatherings and encouraging a stranger with their best intentions. But that’s how it is…most everyone here has been ‘saved’ in some way or another from desperate or certainly less pleasant circumstances; therefore the point is to make people feel valued in our wealth-equals-worth society.

Excuse me, I’ll get down and reword my assessment: …to make people feel a part of the community and not just an anonymous resident without any ties. This is not a freebie thing: residents all pay reasonable monthly rents and utilities, and they all have the opportunity to earn extra money in various ways around the village. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t receive some sort of funding.

But just as important as a dry roof is a good support system while getting back on one's feet, and Community First! does just that. Residents enjoy all sorts of amenities including: a small food market/gift shop where residents  may sell their art (tours come through on occasion); health clinic; chapel; art center; blacksmith; bike shop; and the library had its Grand Opening yesterday.

Architectural firms designed eight basic plans for the tiny houses, which do not have bathrooms or kitchens but contain a small fridge and microwave. Some are small studios while others have separate living and bedrooms. I covet their closet space.

Each comes fully furnished down to linens, knick knacks, outdoor table and chairs and a stocked fridge. All have porches and windows designed for maximum ventilation in addition to ceiling fans. Optional air conditioners are being installed since it does get hot as Hades.  With minor changes such as paint colors, external materials or just left-or-right hand doors, the variations seem limitless. Personally, I’d love this model with the entire roof a patio area.  Lots of people string hammocks.

For those who do not feel comfortable living in solid dwellings for whatever reason, there is the option of an enormous tent, with knotty pine railings, a second canvas roof and porch. Inside there’s a solid floor, electricity, fan, fridge, modest furnishings yet whatever is needed. When I asked why someone would prefer a tent over a tiny house, the response was,

(sic)“Community First was created for the chronically homeless. Some of these people have been living in tents for 30 years, and some still prefer sleeping on the floor to a bed. People choose whichever style of home they feel most comfortable, and they do have preferences. Some like larger porches, some want a little garden area.”  Wow, was all I could say. They’re filling tiny houses as fast as they can build ‘em, using limited manpower and funds but loads of volunteers, like these execs from Deloitte and Touche who worked on the new horseshoe pit during their company’s annual Help the Community day (my words again).

Phase One is capable of housing 250, or approximately 10% of Austin’s homeless population. I’ve been fortunate to avoid living on the streets (yet frightened plenty at the prospect), so I can only imagine how nice my neighbors must feel, free from the elements, not fearful of losing their belongings each time they step away. I know how nice it’s made me feel.

For those who prefer the luxury of their own amenities, large RVs are available to rent, and they have permanent porches, wheelchair ramps and shade structures as well.  I’m staying in the RV area among full-time workers, residents and what they call Missionals. I'm terrible at remembering definitions, but in my words Missionals are Professional Neighbors.

These good-hearted people own their RVs and choose to reside on the property in order to help their fellow man. Sure, religion is spouted on occasion, but they don’t force it down anyone’s throat, and so far I’ve successfully dodged comments like,

“If you’d like to stay after (the free Thursday night Community Supper) for a singalong, you’re welcome.”

I’d been hoping for a clean getaway, but the Preacher at my table was quicker.  I remained silent where I stood; all eyes focused on my reaction. As the newbies we must be careful, I warned Ego Amy, when suddenly I heard myself speak,

“I was just on my way home, but I’ll keep it in mind for next week’s dinner.”

The Preacher beamed, I was thrilled I didn’t offend, and Amy screamed, “Good answer, good answer!” inside my head.

Missionals volunteer around the place in different capacities, but they’re primary role is to offer friendship by being a good neighbor and looking out for others. Don't you wish you had more of that in YOUR neighborhood?

This leads to trust and hopefully a successful re-integration into society, should anyone choose to move elsewhere. I’ve remarked to friends that I imagine this being more like our parent’s and grandparent’s neighborhoods, when people would meet and greet one another along the streets (instead of always on the computer). There are numerous quiet places to just sit, and there's even a Columbarium for residents who have passed away, a concept I find strangely comforting.

There are five bath houses around the grounds containing individual bathrooms and showers, with a laundry room on one end. There are also community kitchens containing stainless steel commercial stoves, grills, massive fridges, sinks and individual lockers.

Let’s see, what else?  Oh, there are several B&B’s for visitors, including a tiny house, Airstream, even Teepees. Friday night’s free movie night, with the community invited.  The place is packed, and the Airstream concession stand sells burgers and hot dogs (half price for residents). Art classes are offered, such as caligraphy and quilting. The local bus line added a stop every hour inside the community, but you can also borrow an electric bike. Free WiFi and ice available 24/7.

Oops, there's the garden and chicken coop, which is carefully tended by a small army. Each Saturday they offer free produce and eggs to the residents. AA meetings are scheduled; there's a dog park; and a vet comes once a month.

There are rules, but this is by no means a strictly regimented society. There are quiet hours; no vehicles except in your spot; visitors must have tags or they'll be towed. Most people are outgoing; some are more introverted, which is likely how I seem since I'm camped inside with a/c during my time off, phew!  It’s like any other neighborhood in that regard, but I’ll bet the crime rate here is lower than most.

So what do I do? At the moment anything I’m physically able to, which I’m finding is less than I’d thought. While my heart may be willing my bones and muscles think otherwise, and so my construction tasks have been limited. But my 'Frillies', as one artist friend teasingly calls my decorative painting, are starting to pop up.  

I was solicited by one resident to paint an ocean mural on the side of her tiny rental house, but since that was impractical the solution was to incorporate all her desires on to an oversized canvas, which I picked up in Goodwill last weekend. Right up my alley, don’t you think? Tammy's thrilled, and I got warm-fuzzies in return.

For however long I'm able to stick out the heat and pain, it's definitely
worth the trip, and I'm proud to be even a small part. This progressive yet practical idea will continue to spread with time. Already people are staying for extended periods to study how the model works with the hope of starting something similar in their own communities.

It’s a good thing.


  1. I hope this becomes one of your most popular blogs as the concept is revolutionary! Wouldn't it be nice if these 'commune-style' groups functioned throughout the U.S. as an alternative to isolating senior housing projects and as an opportunity for people to contribute their skills and offer their help to those less fortunate? Well-written. Bravo Andrea!!

    1. Yes, word is getting out. It's been a month now, and I am definitely staying for awhile.


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