Paint and a Paintbrush Are Rebuilding Community for Austin’s Homeless

Homelessness is on the rise in Austin, Texas. In 2018, more than 7,000 people experienced homeless in Austin, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). On any given day there are over 2,000 individuals living in shelters or unsheltered — a number that’s risen nearly 5% between 2018 and 2019. 
But building a community can play an important role in supporting individuals experiencing homelessness. Since 1990, Art from the Streets has been doing exactly that. 
The organization helps the housing insecure find a greater sense of stability through art. Three times a week, individuals gather at a local Austin church where they can paint for free during an open studio session. There, artists have a refuge from life on the streets while also building a greater sense of community.
“We create a place of safety for people who are on the street to be able to come inside to just be, and be supported to create,” co-founder Heloise Gold told NationSwell. “I don’t refer to this as ‘art therapy’ per se, but it is very therapeutic.”
Art from the Streets also helps its artists get paid for their work. For the past 27 years, it’s hosted an end-of-year show and sale where artists are able to sell their original pieces for 95% of the profits. In more recent years, Art from the Streets has opened an online store to sell reprints and merchandise. Artists earn 60% of the proceeds from reprints, while the remaining 40% goes to support the organization.
Though the sale of artwork is important, Gold maintains that it’s the sense of community instilled that drives Art from the Streets’ mission.
“The heart of the program and what I was wanting in the beginning, that essence is still apart of this program,” said Gold. “We really want people to be apart of the community and to be influenced by each other.”
More: This Website Empowers People in Need to Make Art — and Sell It for Thousands of Dollars

These Austin Tiny Homes Could House 40% of the City’s Chronically Homeless Population

Alan Graham’s eyes glimmer whenever he talks about one of his big ideas — and this one might be the biggest of them all.
“I like extraordinary challenges,” he told NationSwell. “I’ve been challenged my whole life.” 
Extraordinary is a perfect word to describe the problem he’s devoted his life to solving: homelessness in the United States. For the last 14 years, Graham and his nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF) have worked to build Community First Village, a 27-acre development just outside Austin’s city limits made up of eclectic tiny homes, RVs and tricked-out tents. 
There, people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness can sleep without fear for their safety at night, recover from addiction, and find the connections and social support to lift them up for the rest of their lives. 
“Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will,” Graham theorizes. “If you really want to understand homelessness, you must understand what home is.” 
To Graham, home is a permanent place where someone finds security, builds memories, shares stories and feels like they belong — and Community First invites all of its residents to help build that home for one another.

Community First Village is a 27-acre development just outside Austin’s city limits.

MLF began its work by serving meals to Austin’s homeless in 1998, but Graham always felt there was more to be done. Then, in 2003, he and his colleagues went on a “street retreat,” spending three nights sleeping outside with their homeless neighbors down by The ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless). 
Picking through dumpsters and swapping stories, he began to see common themes emerge around how people ended up there: a divorce, a death in the family, an abusive relationship. 
“The single greatest cause of homelessness [is] a profound, catastrophic loss of family,” he said.
So Graham set out to build a community that would go beyond the Housing First model that’s gained prominence in recent years — not just putting roofs over people’s heads, but providing health resources, employment opportunities, and above all else prioritizing social connection.
You’ll find no fences, gates, or even many locked doors at the Village. According to Graham, the very concept of a private, outdoor space hurts the effort to build community.
“If I was the Home Czar of the United States, I would essentially ban backyards,” Graham said. “30% of the square footage of the house [would have] to be your front porch. Everybody would come hang out.”
Meals are cooked in communal outdoor kitchens and shared at the Community Table, a wooden pavilion in the center of the neighborhood. Porches tend to be nearly as large as the homes themselves, and you can’t go more than 15 minutes without a neighbor walking by helping to move a piece of furniture or checking in on the health of your pet.
He sees the Village as an answer not just to the country’s homelessness problem, but to the more universal struggle of human isolation. 
“Ever since World War II, we have been building these subdivisions,” he said. “And inside these subdivisions are these hermetically sealed, single-family sarcophaguses that we call the American Dream.” At Community First Village, residents are piloting a new model they hope will spread to other communities for the formerly homeless and beyond.
People catching up in a chapel at Community First Village.

The MLF team built the Village to address the needs of the most at-risk homeless residents in Austin — single adults with a mental or physical disability who’ve lived on the streets for at least one year.
To live at the Village, residents pay rent of $220–420 depending on which unit they choose. Some receive Disability payments that cover the costs, while others have part-time jobs or other sources of income. For those who need it, the Village offers employment opportunities through its Community Works program. Residents who participate in the program earn $500–2,000 per month to do work that ranges from auto detailing to blacksmithing to creating and selling original artwork. There’s also basic grounds maintenance and upkeep, gardening and even selling concessions at the outdoor movie theater on site.
Some of the people living outside near The ARCH told us they were skeptical of a homelessness service that required residents to pay rent while they were still struggling to get back on their feet. A man named Tayvon said, “A lot of people think it’s gonna be free, then they go down there and…” he shook his head, trailing off. “It’s bullshit.”  
But Graham and other Village residents believe the responsibility of earning an income and contributing to the community is a critical part of its success. 
“I want to not be here just to be here,” said Village resident John Rogers. “I want to become a part of it, giving back, helping people.” Rogers has become known as the “Popsicle Man,” always there to greet people with a cold treat on a hot day.
Community First Village resident John Rogers is known as the “Popsicle Man” for delivering treats on hot days.

The Village offers a promising model for mitigating homelessness nationwide — if similar communities can find the funding and local buy-in. Graham and his team tried for years to launch the Village closer to the heart of Austin, but faced extreme pushback from residents citing “not in my backyard” concerns. 
In the middle of negotiations with the city, Graham said, “I went to a neighborhood meeting that imploded into our Armageddon. We were spit on, we were assaulted, police were called, the media was there…[It put] the death nail into that coffin.”
After relocating to a plot of land outside city limits, MLF used $18 million in private donations to open Phase 1 of the Village, which has the capacity to house over 200 people. While many Austin residents objected to the community being built too close to home, there was still incredible local support for the concept. The Village boasts dozens of community partners, from businesses to nonprofits to churches and schools.
While the price tag on launching the Village seems high, the cost of homelessness to a city is even higher. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that one chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year, or around $42 million annually in Austin.
Graham believes the Community First model could take root anywhere. “This [problem] is mitigatable if we begin to, jointly as a community, begin to wrap our arms around it,” he said. “We’re hoping that the term ‘Community First’ will be ubiquitous in five to 10 years.”
A smaller community modeled after the Village launched in Springfield, Missouri, in 2018 and has already housed 14% of the city’s chronically homeless. Other developments are in the early planning stages in several cities across the country. And MLF’s Village is slated to expand to house over 480 people in the coming years — nearly half of Austin’s chronically homeless population.
“From a moral point of view, I think it’s a blight on who we are as a culture that we would even allow this to happen,” said Graham. “I have the power and each of us has the power to go and to love and to care.”
Watch the video above to take a peek inside Community First Village and meet some of the residents.
More: Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

Renewable Energy’s Role Model, The Written Word Brings Life to the Homeless and More

Guess Which State Towers Over All the Others on Wind Energy?, onEarth
In a state known for caucuses and cornfields, renewable energy has taken root. More than 30 percent of Iowa’s in-state electricity generation already comes from wind — and it’s only going to increase, thanks to a new wind farm housing a turbine that’s taller than the Washington Monument.
Using Literature as a Force for Good Among Austin’s Homeless Population, CityLab
Barry Maxwell, a former resident of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, is paying it forward. As founder of Street Lit, he collects donated books and provides a creative writing class (participants write short stories, poetry, blog posts) to create a sense of community among those living on the streets.
Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City, New York Times Magazine
More than 60 years after the monumental Brown vs. Board of Education court ruling, New York City public schools remain some of the most racially- and economically-divided in the country. So where does a middle-class African-American family enroll their daughter: A segregated, low-income public school or a “good” public or private one?

Tomorrow’s Energy-Saving Neighborhood Is Being Built Today in Texas

America’s most futuristic neighborhood is being built, perhaps surprisingly, in Texas.
Under construction in Austin, the Lone Star State’s liberal enclave, is a residential development boasting rooftop solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and meters to measure the electricity usage of every appliance. Known as the Mueller neighborhood, the community is “smart grid experiment” where the Pecan Street research consortium brought together experts from universities and utilities alike to provide real-world data for one of the most important ecological questions of our time: How can we reduce our energy and water consumption?
“There was virtually no data available on appliance-level electric use. We were trying to determine if testing certain things out, like electric cars or home energy-management systems would affect people compared to how they used electricity before they got access to this stuff,” says Brewster McCracker, Pecan Street’s president and CEO. “There was not only no data on that but nothing on the market that would measure that. We spent a long time working with suppliers and configuring things to measure appliance use every minute 365 days a year.”
Energy usage by homeowners and businesses fluctuates wildly, accounting for 41 percent of all consumption. To be more environmentally friendly, McCracken says, we need to think about reducing our use during peak times, as well as what will use less total energy. That’s why Pecan Street’s live data is so important for measuring exactly what appliances are putting heavy demands on the system. Its analytics can tell you that an electric vehicle charger puts the same load on the grid as a clothes dryer — both far less than an air conditioner. Previously, no one tested the kind of impact that a dozen electric vehicles on one block, let alone an entire neighborhood.
Through a mobile app, the research team informs customers of specific ways to reduce energy like, say, unplugging the microwave. Those suggestions have led to a 10 percent reduction in electricity use, McCracken, a former two-term member of the Austin city council, says. Overall, the Mueller neighborhood uses 38 percent less electricity on heating and cooling than their less green neighbors.
The stats help plan better infrastructure for an entire region. Conventional wisdom, for instance, holds that south-facing solar panels will absorb the most sunlight. Which is true generally, McCracken says, but energy companies should know that west-facing photovoltaic panels will absorb more energy during late summer afternoons when need is greatest, his team found.
Additionally, Pecan Street can detect when something seems amiss on an individual home. “We found that people who have solar panels have minor maintenance issues, but they didn’t have any way to learn about them,” McCracken says. “By having that data, we were able to isolate the solar panels that are turned off. Other things could be more subtle. A single fuse that’s blown could produce at a reduced level. We have the data analytics running to detect that. It’s not something that you could stare at a rooftop or look at the electricity bill to see that happened, but better data helps.”
The research institute’s data collection has been so unique that other energy companies throughout the country have invited it to study their neighborhoods. Pecan Street now gathers stats from more than 1,200 homes, primarily clustered in Texas, Colorado and California, and ships the data out to 138 universities in 37 countries.
“We have strong reason to believe that access to better data and better information enhances our ability to solve problems,” McCracken says. “If we have better data on weather patterns, we can help people be safe in storms. If we have better data on car performance, we can make cars that work better.” With a hotter planet, drought in the West and superstorms along the East Coast, this Texan neighborhood couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time.

This Man Says American Democracy Is Dead, But He’s Working to Revive It

Tomorrow, Lawrence Lessig will bring his message on the need to get big money out of politics to Austin, Texas.
In a talk called “MAYDAY: The Next Phase in the Fight to Save American Democracy,” the lawyer and activist will address a crowd gathered at SXSW Interactive.
Not among the badge holders? Not to worry. Join the conversation using the hashtags #sxsw and #maydaypac.
Whether you tune in virtually or in person, don’t miss these videos from our NationSwell Council event with Lawrence Lessig.
Here, he describes why the Citizens United ruling was, in fact, a gift to campaign finance reform.
And in less than a minute, he captures the reason for his political action committee.
Lessig has drawn a lot of attention with his mission to raise money for candidates who commit to saving our system. He’s not alone at SXSW Interactive in tackling the issue of making government work, as the conference deals with the intersection of technology and just about everything.
Interested in improving government? You can also tune in online or in person for sessions including “Move Fast, Government, Or Get Out of the Way” and “How Government Fails and How You Can Fix It,” featuring another featured NationSwell Council speaker, Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka.

The Group Pedaling to a Cleaner Earth

What would you think if saw someone riding a bike with a bunch of garbage bins attached to it?
For residents in Austin, Texas, this site isn’t uncommon. That’s because since December 2012, the East Side Compost Pedallers (ESCP) have been riding around, collecting trash to be composted by local urban farms, schools and community gardens.
“Scrapple” is how the cyclists affectionately refer to the compostable food waste which they collect. Currently, the group is comprised of seven bikers who serve residences in east Austin and neighborhoods by the University of Texas, as well as local businesses such as DropBox and small cafes.
Cyclists are equipped with custom-built, heavy-duty Metrofiet cargo bikes that can carry 55 gallon barrels totaling 250 pounds each. They also have the option of riding retro-filled pedicabs, which can carry barrels weighing 800 pounds each.
The for-profit organization charges for its services: For residences, it’s $4 per week, while the cost varies for businesses depending upon their size and the amount of bins required.
Over the past two years, ESCP has seen a growing client base and massive results. Among its achievements, the group can boast that it has redirected more than 190,000 pounds of scrapple from landfills, produced 50,000 pounds of compost, reduced the costs of composting by $5,000 for farmer patrons and stopped the emission of about 30 tons of methane, according to Good.
Their clients have also noticed how beneficial the service has been, too. Composting for the past 27 years, the East Side Café started using ESCP six months ago. So far, the café has redirected 7,155 pounds of waste and prevented more than a ton of methane emissions.
Perhaps the most defining feature of the group, though, is their drive to improve the environment and the community.
“East Side Compost Peddallers are pioneering the compost movement in Austin,” Elaine Martin, Eastside Cafe’s chef and owner, tells Good. “They’re out there pedaling every day, and you can tell they’re passionate about what they’re doing and want to make our community a better place to live. It’s great to work with people who care about your neighborhood as much as you do.”
And with that, keep pedalling, please.
MORE: It May Sound Like a Potty Humor, But This Campaign to Conserve Water is Serious Business

5 Very Simple, Practical Things You Can Do to Curb Climate Change

Climate change is a defining issue of our time and there is no time to lose,” proclaimed Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General, during last month’s U.N. Climate Summit. “There is no Plan B because we do not have a Planet B.”
Since you’ve already converted from a gas-guzzling SUV and always BYOB (bring your own bag) to the supermarket, try making these tweaks to your everyday lifestyle. They’ll help the U.N. achieve its goal of keeping the earth’s temperature from rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 and, in turn, keep the planet from facing even more disasters like famine, disease and water shortages.

How Mapping Health Data Can Reduce Childhood Obesity

There is no blanket solution when it comes to fighting childhood obesity, especially in an urban setting where diverse cultures, economic disparity and access to parks and fitness activities can create a complex web of challenges.
Add insight from an abundance of community stakeholders including educators, parents and local lawmakers and finding a single solution to combatting the problem is near impossible. But an Austin, Texas, nonprofit may have found the key to getting everyone’s attention when it comes to understanding the problem: Visualization.
Children’s Optimal Health (COH) is charged with improving health for the city’s youth, but the nonprofit discovered that identifying the problem meant looking at the issue on a neighborhood level. Thanks to a Texas law that requires public schools to record fitness data on every student, COH used the information to create maps that identify “hotspots” that include social and economic information, according to Government Technology.
“You don’t have to know English or have an education to see this and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my neighborhood,’” said COH Executive Director Maureen Britton.
Through data-sharing agreements with more than 12 central Texas education and health entities, COH aggregates student information including BMI and cardiovascular fitness scores, geo-tagged by neighborhood. Student names are removed and the data is completely anonymous — focusing only on identifying the issues families in these local communities face. As the Austin tech sector continues to bring more business and more people to town, COH is committed to ensuring low-income residents don’t fall by the wayside.
“There’s not enough attention paid to the struggles in Austin as the population outside of the tech industry grows. That’s our concern,” Britton said. “The more we bring this data to life through the maps, the more we get data-driven information to the right people.”
COH is also able to overlay the student health maps with other data sets, creating more granular narratives to show how the city can improve wellness initiatives. For example, a neighborhood’s proximity to a concentration of fast food restaurants or a community’s crime rate could contribute to the area’s obesity rate.
But perhaps it’s COH’s ability to network institutions that may otherwise not collaborate that might be most impressive about the nonprofit, as Government Technology points out. For example, getting hospitals involved in changing school physical education curriculum or schools to engage in interventions for existing infrastructure are just a few examples of how COH has found a way to get all community stakeholders on the same page.
As more cities collaborate on civic innovation initiatives, officials should take note the power of a picture and how it can reshape the conversation.
MORE: The Radical School Reform That Just Might Work

Thanks to This Pop Star, 22 Homeless Veterans Now Have Access to Affordable Housing

Who cares what color Katy Perry’s hair currently is. She’s proven her heart is true blue by auctioning off a concert experience to help homeless veterans get off the streets.
The pop star teamed up with Veterans Matter, a nonprofit started by Ken Leslie in 2012 when he learned that HUD-VASH (a combined initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) doesn’t provide a deposit to homeless vets receiving rental vouchers.
The lack of a down payment is a huge obstacle for struggling, jobless veterans looking to take advantage of the program.
Perry auctioned off a ticket package — complete with VIP perks and a chance to meet the singer — to a stop on her Prismatic tour for $4,000 to Scott Vaughn of Oakton, Va. The money will make a big impact: providing housing deposits to 17 homeless veterans in Austin, Texas, and 5 in Detroit.
Vaughn attended Perry’s recent Cleveland show, where she told him, “Thank you so much for helping Veterans Matter, it is so important that we help those who fought for our freedom,” according to Digital Journal‘s Earl Dittman.
Leslie is quite skilled at interesting celebrities in Veterans Matter, with such musicians as Kid Rock, John Mellencamp, Ice-T and Stevie Nicks contributing to the cause. “These homeless veterans have guaranteed long-term housing and the keys are jingling in their hands,” Leslie tells Dittman. “All they need is the deposit to get them over the threshold. Katy and the others are helping us provide that final piece that pushes them over that threshold.”
MORE: What Do Kid Rock, John Mellencamp, and Mitch Albom Have in Common?

Cities or Suburbs: Which Area is Seeing a Population Boom?

Close your eyes and picture idyllic tree-lined streets in a cheery suburban neighborhood. If you open your eyes, however, you might still see that image — only there might be a lot of “for sale” signs posted in front yards or dark houses due to vacancy.
That’s because cities are now seeing a population influx. According to census analysis by William Frey of the Brookings Institution, this could be the decade of big-city growth.
Analyzing data from 2010-2013, Frey was able to figure out that cities themselves — not just their metropolitan areas — grew at a measurably faster rate than suburbs, with “primary cities” (those with a population over 1 million) growing 1.13 percent from 2011 to 2012. At the same time, suburban areas grew at only .95 percent.
While the difference (and growth rate itself) may seem minimal, it reflects more significant changes that are happening in a select number of cities such as New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; San Jose, California; Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Cary, North Carolina; Denver; and Seattle. All those cities have even faster growth rates even faster than the national average!
Although there are a variety of reasons that people may be migrating back to cities, one that we’ve mentioned before is the rise of the innovation district – urban areas that are easily accessible and combine a variety of organizations and people advancing ideas and promoting ingenuity. These areas attract not only jobs, but because of their cosmopolitan and integrated feel, residents too.
Another specific driver of growth could be the new transportation initiative in Minneapolis-St. Paul, another booming city, according to City Lab.
So, does this mean the demise of white picket fences and two-car garages? Hardly. As the study points out, the suburbs are continuing to grow, albeit at a slower pace. But with growth, comes innovation — giving cities the upper hand.