AUSTIN (KXAN) — Four days ago, Frank moved into Community First! Village just outside east Austin. A singer and lifelong songwriter, he dreamed of joining a musical group and looks forward to sharing his talents with his new neighbors.

Prior to moving into a tiny home at Community First! Village, Frank had been living on the streets of Austin for years.

Those experiencing homelessness are not statistics or data points, said Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes; each are humans who deserve the dignity of permanent housing and an opportunity for a second chance.

“We have to choose, as a community, that these are our neighbors and that what they need is a community that wants to come together to figure out a path forward that brings them home and that brings them into community,” she said.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes President Amber Fogarty visits one of the site's tiny homes. The Community First! Village houses those who were previously experiencing homelessness. (Kelsey Thompson/KXAN)
Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, visits one of the site’s tiny homes. The Community First! Village houses those who were previously experiencing homelessness. (Kelsey Thompson/KXAN)

Community First! Village launched in 2015 as a permanent housing resource for those experiencing homelessness to access stable housing along with food, clothing, employment opportunities and medical care. Fogarty said an integrated approach is essential at addressing some of the struggles of those experiencing homelessness by consolidating resources in a centralized place.

“I’ve been working with people experiencing homelessness for 17 years, and over the entire course of that journey, I’ve gotten to know so many people deeply — their stories, their struggles,” she said. “I think that we need to be having a really honest conversation about mental health, and about the struggles of our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, and how we can care for them in a deeply relational, compassionate way.”

Nearly 26,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Texas, according to data collected by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Nationally, Texas is ranked fourth for its total homeless population, behind California, New York and Florida.

Of its total homeless population, more than 3,500 people are classified as experiencing chronic homelessness, defined by USICH as people with a disability who are experiencing extensive or repeated cycles of homelessness.

In recent years, tiny homes have emerged as a solution for addressing homelessness in major metropolitan regions. An April 2020 study from the Professional Geographer journal reported 115 tiny house villages nationwide that catered toward formerly unhoused people.

At Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Fogarty said the nonprofit has received visits from leaders of more than 150 cities and 32 states to learn from and mirror their tiny homes model. Statewide, city officials from San Antonio, Midland, Victoria, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area have toured the facilities to implement similar projects in their communities.

While shelters and temporary living spaces are immediate measures communities can take to assist those needing housing, Fogarty said permanency is a crucial component lacking from national homelessness conversations.

“We believe that housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will,” she said. “So our approach is about creating this holistic community where we have the ability to connect human-to-human, heart-to-heart.”

“Our goal is to create a bridge between where our friends are now and bringing them home to Community First! Village. Our goal is to bring people home for good.”

Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes

Fogarty said that the re-emergence of a camping ban does not automatically solve Austin’s homelessness crisis. Proactive mitigation measures take years to implement and need to focus on permanent housing solutions, paired with listening to what those experiencing homelessness specifically need.

Currently, Mobile Loaves & Fishes partners with Austin-Travis County EMS, Front Steps, the Homeless Outreach Street Team, Sunrise Navigation Center, Caritas of Austin, the Salvation Army and other local entities to help connect with and support those without housing.

Looking ahead, Mobile Loaves & Fishes is expanding its footprint with additional micro-homes and RV home spaces for those in need. Phase 2 of Community First! Village’s expansion is underway, with the construction of more than 300 homes scheduled for completion in the end of 2022. Phases 3 and 4 of the project, announced in mid-April, encompass an additional 1,400 micro-homes and are expected to break ground next summer.

“Our goal is to create a bridge between where our friends are now and bringing them home to Community First! Village,” she said. “Our goal is to bring people home for good.”