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

There’s a Way to Connect Homeless People With Their Loved Ones — and You Can Be a Part of It

Whenever Timothy could get someone to listen to him, he would give that person a phone number. That number, Timothy thought, would reach his family back in Chicago.
But that number never worked for anyone who tried it.
Then, Timothy, who was living in St. Anthony’s, a homeless shelter in San Francisco, met a volunteer from Miracle Messages. The volunteer took the phone number — which turned out to be incorrect — a message and all the information Timothy could remember about his family living back east.
The volunteer found a Whitepages listing for Timothy’s sister, wrote her a letter and waited.
Within a week, Timothy’s family responded. Within three weeks, Timothy was on a bus home.
Timothy’s family was ecstatic about having him home again. “We cherish family and we do what we need to do to help one another,” Laveta Carney, Timothy’s niece, told UNILAD. “Without Miracle Messages, we would still be looking, hope silently slipping away as time goes by.”
Miracle Messages is a nonprofit “reunion service” that reconnects people experiencing homelessness with their loved ones. The nonprofit sends volunteers out to record messages through video, audio and text, and with the help of volunteer online “detectives,” finds and shares those messages with loved ones.
There are over half a million homeless people in the United States, and a variety of ways people who experience homelessness lose touch with loved ones. It might be something as straightforward as a misplaced cellphone. Sometimes feelings of shame and embarrassment associated with having lost one’s home hinder a reunion. There are also people who don’t have the digital literacy or digital access to find their loved ones, Jessica Donig, Miracle Messages’ executive director, told NationSwell.
Support from loved ones can be a key element in escaping homelessness, Donig said. Donig recounted her first time volunteering in a shelter where she walked down rows of beds crowded with people at the largest homeless shelter in northern California. There she felt “deep loneliness,” she said.
“A shelter is a place that’s packed full of people,” she said. “But it’s a very lonely place.”
People don’t live for a bed or a roof over their head. They live for their people, Donig said.
Beyond providing a positive life outlook, loved ones can be advocates for the person experiencing homeless. Sometimes a loved one has the means to provide them with a home.
Founder and CEO Kevin Adler described how Miracle Messages is part of the growing movement to triage homelessness. It can also save cities money.
“It’s the most cost effective, humane intervention to tackle homelessness in our communities,” Adler told NationSwell.
Miracle Messages has reconnected over 210 people with their loved ones so far. Thirty-four of those individuals are no longer homeless. Timothy is one of those people.
“When you think about the stories about like Timothy’s, that’s a person who would never have gotten off the streets,” Donig said. “He might have gone into permanent housing but that would’ve been at the cost to the city.”
And a considerable cost, at that. A person experiencing homelessness costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 a year. For someone like Timothy, who wouldn’t have been prioritized in a system that prioritizes families and women, it could take years for him to gain permanent housing.
Miracle Messages works with outreach workers, case managers and shelters to provide the messages as an additional resource.
“Miracle Messages is great when it’s offered as a stand-alone service,” Donig said. “But it’s much better when it’s offered with other resources.”
The nonprofit sends groups out to homeless shelters and streets to record messages. The online volunteers then hunt for family members and try to connect the two parties.
It takes between two and three weeks for a case to be solved. The average time the families are disconnected is 20 years.
The nonprofit started in 2014 in memory of Adler’s Uncle Mark. Mark was frequently homeless and living on and off the streets for 30 years. Alder said Mark was the sweetest, most family-oriented uncle he could’ve asked for.
Years after Mark died, Adler visited his grave. Afterward, Adler remembered pulling out his phone and scrolling through social media status updates.
“What would it look like to use these storytelling tools to help people like my uncle?”
Adler got involved with the issue of homelessness in California, where he met Jeffrey on the streets. Adler started talking with Jeffery, who hadn’t seen his niece, nephew or sister in 22 years. After chatting, Adler pulled out his phone, recorded a video for Jeffery’s family and posted it to Facebook.
Within an hour it was shared over a hundred times, and within 20 minutes, Jeffery’s sister was tagged.
Jeffery, who had been registered as missing for 12 years, now had his family back. That simple effort of recording a message turned into what Miracle Messages is today.
Donig joined the team after her first visit to a homeless shelter with Miracle Messages.
“What I witnessed at Miracle Messages on that first day really was a paradigm shift for me,” she said.
It’s where she recorded her first message and where she engaged in meaningful conversations.
Donig said she went into the shelter skeptical. She initially felt the work was invasive. Asking about lost family and friends seemed “off limits.” But everyone was so eager to share their stories and reconnect, that those initial thoughts dissipated.
Six weeks later, she joined Miracle Messages.
With a background in sociology and startups, Donig brought her experience to Miracle Messages in 2017 with the hope to expand it into across the nation. She created a systematic approach that anyone can replicate, she said.  
Donig said there are four essential pieces of information to collect in each message. The information about the homeless person, information about the loved one, what they want to say and how to reach the homeless person afterward.
Although the team’s main efforts are in California, anyone anywhere can send a message through Miracle Message’s website, email ([email protected]) or helpline (1-800-MISS-YOU).
“In this area of homelessness, everyone needs to work together, because there isn’t a single solution that fits everyone,” she said.
More: These Parking Lots Give Homeless People a Safe Place to Sleep for the Night

This Newspaper Hired Homeless People to Report Its Stories — and Changed Their Lives

When David Denny walks the U Street corridor of Washington, D.C., it doesn’t take much to remind him of the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to looting and arson that left the city in flames. “We saw people throwing bricks and bottles, and breaking windows: All hell was breaking loose,” Denny recalled. “You’d see stuff burning everywhere.” Today, he walks around the same neighborhood, pointing out the African American–owned businesses that survived the looting. “A lot of innocent people got caught up in this whole fray, me being one of the innocent people. I had a gun trained on me at the age of 13.”
Fifty years later, U Street is a thriving commercial corridor, but the riots are still fresh in Denny’s mind. For years, he coped by using drugs and alcohol, and he spent some time in prison. For a time, he called an abandoned building in southeast D.C., roughly a 15-minute drive from where the riots took place, home. He busied himself by writing poems in his head about his experiences, to keep his mind active and spirits up. Nights were spent sleeping atop a flattened box, a makeshift bed in a sea of milk crates, broken glass and empty cans.
Denny would be the first to admit that his current life looks quite different from the one he worked hard to escape. As a contributor at Street Sense — a biweekly, volunteer-run newspaper whose vendors are part of the homeless community — Denny spends three days each week in his blue Street Sense vest, a stack of papers in hand, selling copies to D.C. residents. A portion of the sales goes towards the paper’s production costs; the reporters tasked with selling copies keep any remaining earnings. Other days, Denny facilitates orientations for new vendors in Street Sense Media’s office.
It’s a business model that’s worked well for the company, which has expanded from an initial print run of 5,000 newspapers in 2003 to a thriving media center, where staff members can use various media platforms —  including film, theater, audio, photography or illustration — to tell their stories. “When I first found Street Sense Media, I was sleeping on the street, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and coming home from prison,” Denny said. “I wanted to find a way to be productive in society.”
While the first street paper, the now-defunct Street News, was founded in New York City in 1989, there are currently over 40 other street papers in circulation in the U.S., including Nashville’s The Contributor and Portland’s Street Roots. In 1994, the International Network of Street Papers was founded in Glasgow, Scotland, taking the movement worldwide. Today, there are more than 100 street papers in 35 countries, employing about 21,000 vendors annually and reaching over 4.6 million readers.

Street Sense vendors at orientation. “There is no single story of homelessness, there is no one cause, and there is no one solution. Each one of our vendors participates in the programming that best fits their own situation,” says Jeff Gray, Street Sense’s sales and communications manager.

In an era where the circulation of print newspapers has been steadily declining, the existence of Street Sheets might seem like an anomaly. However, their power as an advocacy tool has enabled some papers to fund themselves through grants, though the amount each one receives can vary widely, according to Megan Hustings, Director at the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Grants are a one-time thing, and you get lucky if you receive them more than once,” she said. “While we’ve seen some papers ebb and flow, others have gotten well set up.”
While the cost of each paper varies by city and publication — according to Jeff Gray, Street Sense Media’s sales and communications manager, most cost $1 or $2 per issue, with monthly magazines costing slightly more — the business model for all papers is the same. Vendors purchase papers at a discount, and sell each issue for a slightly higher price, keeping any profits. “It’s entrepreneurial for the vendors,” Hustings said.
The majority of Street Sense Media’s operating budget comes from private donations. “We get grant money from private foundations, and generate some income from sales of the papers,” Gray said. Vendors purchase their papers for 50 cents an issue, which goes towards the paper’s operating costs, and each issue is sold for a suggested donation.
But before they’re able to sell papers, vendors must train to earn their license to sell. At Street Sense Media, the training is up to a month long. “We ask that they come in for an hour-long training once a week,” Gray said.  “Once they leave, they have a checklist to complete [which includes] attending multimedia workshops and meeting staff members.” The workshops are held twice a week, and are led by volunteer professionals in their field, Gray said. “We have a theater workshop hosted by a nonprofit theater company, a filmmaking cooperative and a writer’s group run by a local professor.”

It might sound like school, but none of the workshops are mandatory, and none of the vendors have deadlines. They’re given writing prompts and are encouraged to create art based on feedback from instructors. “The amount of time spent selling the paper and participating in workshops varies from vendor to vendor. We don’t have any requirements,” Gray said. “Some vendors sell the papers seven days a week and don’t participate in workshops; some come to workshops and rarely sell the newspaper.”
Since the newspaper was founded in 2003, Street Sense Media has expanded to offer workshops in theater, writing and podcasting for those experiencing homelessness.

Denny found Street Sense Media through a former vendor, and he was inspired to use the paper as an outlet for poems he wrote while in prison. “I only create poetry; I can’t draw or sing,” said Denny. “But I had a ton of poems in my head, and I submitted one of them every time a new issue came out.”
One of the entries Denny’s most proud of is Commentary to a Black Man, which caught the attention of former President Barack Obama after one of Denny’s most regular readers sent it to him after its publication in 2013. Nine months after the poem was published, Obama responded with a letter, reflecting on its depictions of the African-American community and the need for a commitment to change. “We need to change the statistics for young men and boys of color — not just for their sake, but for the sake of America’s future,” Obama said in the letter.  “We will start a different cycle, and this country will be richer and stronger for it for generations to come.”
One of the biggest benefits to vendors at Street Sense Media is the full-time case managers they have on staff, who play a key role in helping vendors connect to services that will help them find permanent housing. “Affordable housing in D.C. is [still] incredibly expensive,” says Colleen Cosgriff, Street Sense Media’s on-staff case manager. “It can be a long and frustrating process for someone to wait, and there are a lot of unknowns. But we try to work ahead of those things so when the opportunity arises, we’re ready to go.”
Among the complications that make it a time-consuming process: In order to get into permanent housing, the list of items vendors need to provide varies by program. The most important item to recover is the person’s ID — which can be a driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate or immigration documents. “When someone is homeless, it is common for their belongings to be stolen or thrown away while they are on the streets or in a shelter,” Cosgriff said. “It’s important for someone to have all of their IDs because some programs require this.” Once these items are found, the vendor can apply for a housing voucher.
She added: “One of the great things about Street Sense Media is while I’m working on a lot of tangible needs, like housing, benefits and healthcare, we have artistic workshops and opportunities for people to express themselves and tell their own stories.”
The most important part of Cosgriff’s work with Denny was playing a part in rebuilding his day-to-day life. “He’s an amazing writer, and being able to share that in a paper was really important to him,” she said. “One of the things we had to work on is the concept that there’s something better out there for everyone,” she added. “People don’t deserve to be homeless. They don’t deserve to live in this type of poverty. But when you’re in there for years and years and that becomes your life, you’re surviving day to day.”
While Cosgriff hasn’t known Denny as long as some of the other vendors, she admits that working with him was more than just a weekly check-in. “David and I didn’t sit down and say, ‘It could be better,’ and that was it,” she said. “We talked about housing, life and art. He’s a poet, and I also really appreciate poetry, so we were able to have a conversation around things that were important to him. It’s amazing to see customers interacting with him, and to hear him doing his pitch and to see people responding to him.”
Cosgriff says her work with each vendor is important, as is the bigger picture of what Street Sense Media hopes to accomplish in their local community. “We have the opportunity to help someone get the tangible needs met,” Cosgriff said. “To get the food, to get the healthcare, to get the home. But then we also have these amazing workshops, and this community for people to rebuild the other side of their lives — to respect themselves in a way they maybe haven’t in a while.”

To hear David’s story and to learn more about Street Sense Media, watch this video.
See More: Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

This Website Empowers People in Need to Make Art — And Sell It for Thousands of Dollars

Kitty Zen used to sell her art on a blanket in a Boston public park. Now, her art has been displayed at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and has sold for $1,000.
Zen, a 25-year-old self-taught artist, has been homeless for most of her life. But through ArtLifting, she’s created an income for herself.
“When I got that first check, it was amazing,” says Zen. “I didn’t want to cash it. I wanted to frame it.”
ArtLifting is an online platform where individuals impacted by homelessness or disabilities can sell artwork. There’s an application process where the artists and their work are assessed for mission alignment and curatorial standards.
Liz Powers, one of ArtLifting’s founders, started working in homeless shelters when she was 18. After graduating from Harvard, she received a grant to create art groups within shelters. But she noticed the art produced in these groups ended up in closets and trash cans.
“I realized there were already existing art groups all across the country, about a thousand of them, and that quality, salable art was being produced every day in these groups. The issue was that the art wasn’t going anywhere after. Instead, it would just collect dust or be thrown out. This is where I realized the need for something like ArtLifting,” Powers says.
So Powers and her brother Spencer pooled together $4,000 and founded the public benefit corporation in 2013. Originally, it functioned solely as an online gallery for original works of art. Now it’s expanded to a marketplace for curated art, business partnerships, prints and merchandise.
ArtLifting started in Boston with just four artists. Six years later, there’s about 150 artists and customers in 46 states. Staff curators choose the art they then represent on their website.
“After the last decade of working with homeless individuals, I’ve heard over and over, ‘Liz, I don’t want another handout. I don’t want someone to hand me another sandwich. I just want opportunity. I want an ability to change my own life.’ And that’s really gotten to me,” Powers says.
While the income artists make is essential, empowerment is a key element of ArtLifting.
“My ultimate goal is to create a movement celebrating strengths. There are countless hidden talents out there, and our goal is to inspire people to notice them,” says Powers.
On its website, each artist has a story. Aron Washington, whose acrylic paintings are influenced by physics and designs, uses art to fight stigmas. Washington, who has synesthesia triggered by a bicycle accident, paints to bring awareness to humanity, he says.
Jackie Calabrese uses art as a release for PTSD and depression. Using colorful acrylics, she paints calming landscapes from memory that remind her of safe and happy places.
“[Painting] helps me to be more motivated in life, to feel less depressed or more peaceful. My past has been full of trauma,” she says. Art is a way to release a lot of that and find more peace within myself. It gives a place to think of that is beautiful instead of all the horror from the past.”
ArtLifting works with small businesses and Fortune 500 companies, like Staples and Microsoft, to provide artwork for offices. Prints sell for about $300 and original artwork has sold for as much as $25,000.
Eric Lewis Basher sold two artworks to Microsoft that now hang in Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Basher currently paints at Hospitality House, a shelter and art studio in San Francisco.
“I am thrilled at the potential this means for me,” Basher says. “If anyone at that level likes my work then the world opens up.”
When a piece of art is sold, each artist makes 55 percent of the profit. One percent goes towards a fund that provides support to art groups, and the remainder keeps the business afloat.
Powers stresses that this isn’t a charity. These are talented artists looking to sell their work and spread their talent to a larger audience.
“It is a very touching moment to actually meet the person who wants to have a piece of your artwork be a part of their homes,” Zen says. “Artists are always our own hardest critics. Being appreciated that way is truly uplifting.”
More: 6 Stunning Art Projects That Are Making Cities Healthier

These Parking Lots Give Homeless People a Safe Place to Sleep for the Night

More than 553,742 people are currently homeless in America. But a large percentage of the country’s homeless population isn’t sleeping in shelters: They’re sleeping in cars.
People who live outside or in unfit sleeping environments, such as cars, streets or abandoned buildings, are referred to as the unsheltered homeless, and they represent a large population of homeless in the U.S. Although these populations are challenging to count, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates about 200,000 people are unsheltered in this country.
Shelters might seem like a better option, but cars can provide a sense of control and privacy, and shelter beds can be in short supply. In Los Angeles, a quarter of the homeless population is living out of cars, vans, campers and recreational vehicles, according to the 2018 L.A. County Homeless Count.
Many residential streets have laws that prevent people from sleeping inside their cars, and those that do so risk theft and vandalization. So the main challenge becomes finding a place to rest for more than just an hour or two.
To combat this, a few California nonprofits have partnered with cities and counties to fund safe parking programs, which are parking lots that grant people and families living out of cars a safe and legal place for an uninterrupted night’s rest. The process is simple: Individuals apply online and submit their vehicle’s registration, their insurance and driver’s license. After doing an interview and getting approved, applicants gain access to a lot. Each evening, the lots open and the individuals sign in, sleep and leave the next morning.
But the goal isn’t just to provide a place to sleep: It’s to provide stability and connect the homeless with resources that will help them get into permanent housing.
One of the first safe parking programs launched in Santa Barbara, California, in 2004. Since then, other cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego have developed similar projects.
In Los Angeles, where more than 15,700 people live out of their vehicles, advocates fought a 10-year battle for safe parking, says Emily Uyeda Kantrim, program director of Safe Parking L.A. And they’re finally winning: Safe Parking L.A. launched in 2016 and opened its first lot in March 2018. The organization now has six parking lots, with four more opening by June.
“We bring people on to the lot at night where they have access to a restroom and a guard, and they exit in the morning. It is literally that stripped down,” says Uyeda Kantrim. “Except that we connect them to other services if they’re not already connected.” These services include an element of case management, similar to what an individual would receive at a shelter.
Every 30 days, Safe Parking L.A. receives about 250 requests for spots. About a hundred of those requests are from people who have never accessed homeless services before. Many are employed and have a stable job, but financial barriers, such as child support payments, student loans and exorbitant rent, leave them living in a car.
These people are not going to be prioritized in the homeless service system because they’re able to advocate for themselves, and they don’t have severe healthcare needs,” Uyeda Kantrim says. “This is a poverty issue.”
Uyeda Kantrim says the average length of stay varies: Families which have the highest priority in homeless services might be at a lot for just a few weeks, while a person under 30 with a job might stay an average of six weeks. The average length of stay is about six months.
Each program has different logistics. Some lots offer restrooms with running water for face-washing and teeth-brushing, while others only provide access to a portable toilet. Most operate during the nighttime hours, while some programs operate 24/7. Most locations have an element of security on site, such as a guard or case manager.
And each cost model is different. At Safe Parking L.A., each lot costs about $12,000 a month, with a majority of that paying for state-mandated security. It was originally funded by private donors but is now funded through a variety of sources, including the city and county.
One key to scaling the L.A. program is keeping the lots small: Currently, each one has five to 25 spaces.
“Having a real neighborhood focus and keeping them really small in concept is the thing that will actually allow it to scale,” she says. Uyeda Kantrim says it’s because they’re more palatable to local residents. A lot with 10 cars doesn’t have as large of an impact compared to a lot with a 100-person capacity. The programs also prioritize people within the area, so it’s directly supporting each community.
In Seattle, where 3,372 people were living out of their cars as of 2018, Karina O’Malley and her church saw a similar need for safe parking after the city passed a Scofflaw Ordinance in 2011, legislation that requires cars to be towed and impounded after receiving four or more parking tickets that have yet to be paid.
For O’Malley and her congregation at the Lake Washington United Methodist Church, the solution was obvious: Open their parking lot. After a little research, finding volunteers and acquiring a porta potty, they launched their own safe parking program. Initially, it was just an asphalt parking lot that served one purpose a place to sleep but O’Malley saw the opportunity to engage more with the local homeless community. So the program opened its lot 24/7, and women and families started attending church sessions and events.
“Everybody heard about homelessness, and everybody gave to [the homeless], but they hadn’t actually met somebody who was,” O’Malley says of her congregation. “Just sitting around a table after church and drinking coffee together, seeing so many similarities and commonalities and building friendships, it really pulled down those stereotypes and made the issue much more immediate.”
The church now provides a bathroom with running water, kitchen, wifi, community support and access to resources. Guests are welcome to park in the lot all day, every day, and they can participate in any of the church gatherings.
“Often women tell me that the first night they’re in the church parking lot is the first night of sleep they’ve had since they’ve become homeless,” O’Malley says.
O’Malley and other safe parking advocates are fighting for a good night’s sleep throughout the country. Uyeda Kantrim is coordinating a Southern California Safe Parking Workshop on May 15 that’s free and open to the public.
Representatives from Santa Barbara, San Diego and L.A. will come together to share best practices, problem-solve, and explain how programs cater to specific cities. The team is also building a toolkit so organizations that can’t attend can gain insight on how to launch a program.
“We’re trying to share literally everything we have,” says Uyeda Kantrim. “We want everyone to do this.”
More: Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

Brett Hart never imagined he’d end up homeless. The Denver-based engineer spent years working maintenance jobs and earning a decent living, until a bike accident upended his life.
“I was T-boned by a car,” he says. “And so unfortunately when that happens, you end up in the hospital… You spend 30 days in the hospital and you’re not working, so you can’t pay the rent for those 30 days. So you get evicted and you lose your job… So you find yourself pretty much on the street.”
Living temporarily in a camper and desperate for cash, Hart discovered a program that could help him get his life back on track.
Denver Day Works was launched by the city’s Human Services department in November 2016 to provide low-barrier employment opportunities to people experiencing homelessness. Modeled after similar programs in other cities, Denver Day Works pays participants $12 to $13 per hour to help with city projects like cleaning up the streets, landscaping and general maintenance. Participants also receive breakfast and lunch while they’re working, bus fare to get to worksites, and access to employment specialists who can help them find long-term work opportunities.  
“Maybe a subtitle for this program is MythBusters, because I think a lot of people, including myself, weren’t sure how successful this would be,” says Don Mares, executive director of Denver Human Services. “We had so many people sign up … that we had a waitlist of folks to come and do that work.”
Boosted by the legal marijuana market and a booming aerospace industry, Denver’s economy continues to thrive. But with its economic resurgence, the city must also grapple with rising housing prices and a recent spike in homelessness.
Watch the video above to learn more about how Denver Day Works is helping people like Hart and others who have fallen on hard times get a fresh start.
More: Day Jobs for Panhandlers, America Resurgent: Denver

America Resurgent: Denver

In the 1980s, Denver’s economy faltered. Its steel industry contracted, resulting in the loss of 30,000 jobs in the city alone, while the overall unemployment rate in Colorado rose to 8.5 percent.
But the city has experienced an economic resurgence over the last two decades. Since 2000, the metro area’s GDP has almost doubled, while the population has grown 17 percent. Aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing took advantage of Denver’s unique location in America and paved the way for over 130 aerospace companies to exist there today, with some support from local universities like the University of Colorado Boulder.
At the same time, recreational marijuana was legalized by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014, which brings $14 million in taxes to Denver every year, and, to date, $769 million to the state of Colorado.
Despite these advances and the growing Denver economy, the city’s homeless population grew over 20 percent in 2017 alone, while the average price of a one-bedroom home surpassed $500,000.
Watch the video above to see how Denver’s resurgence changed the trajectory of the Mile High City.

#AmericaResurgent is a five-part series that elevates the changemakers, approaches and innovations that are driving urban revitalization across the nation. See the rest of the series here, and watch for the next three installments in the weeks to come.

Fighting Homelessness Among Female Vets Takes a Special Approach

Approximately 4,300 women veterans are homeless at any given time, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. When Cindy Seymour, a former Air Force sergeant, heard that number, she knew she had to do something to help her sisters-in-arms.
In 2011, Seymour founded Serenity for Women, an organization that works to improve the lives of women transitioning from the military into civilian life. The Syracuse, New York-based nonprofit does this by building transitional “tiny” homes for homeless female veterans and also connecting them with local support services.
An estimated 1.4 million veterans are at risk of becoming homeless, and women vets make up ten percent of the homeless veteran population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Job support and financial assistance are both critical in reducing homeless veteran populations. But women vets have additional needs that require more nuanced solutions.
“Women veterans absolutely require a different approach of outreach and support than their male counterparts,” says Anna Stormer with the Women Veterans Center in Philadelphia, which reached “functional zero,” or when homelessness is essentially eradicated among veterans, in 2015. Women face a number of unique barriers when accessing services, Stormer says. “A lot of women truly are unaware of the benefits for which they qualify.”
The Women Veterans Center, for example, uses a “trauma informed” approach to help empower female veterans in making long-term housing decisions. This method addresses issues that impact many female vets, like post-traumatic stress disorder. The center also features play areas to occupy kids while their mothers are with social services.
To be connected with [the community] I think is important, and to have an organization that is vet-specific,” says Andrew McCawley, president and CEO of the New England Center and Home for Veterans (NECHV).  
With financing from Citi, NECHV created a designated floor for women and expanded its mental healthcare facilities.
NECHV’s program is one of a number of initiatives across the country with the goal of helping homeless veterans. The Bring Them Homes initiative, run by the LISC-National Equity Fund (NEF) and supported by Citi Community Development, gives pre-development grants to nonprofits that provide supportive housing to homeless veterans. So far, Bring Them Homes has created nearly 4,000 housing units, and also offers a variety of support services to vets in need.
“The greatest need is with single adults, and the percentages have been increasing with women,” says Debbie Burkart, vice president of supportive housing for NEF. “These vets deserve special attention. They have selflessly given to this country and then they’ve come back and, in some cases, we haven’t done enough to take care of them. They shouldn’t end up on the street.”
Much like Bring Them Homes, the tiny homes program in Syracuse embeds supportive services into the housing process. Once construction on the tiny homes is finished, the only thing the women need to bring is themselves — and a willingness to take part in programs that help them secure jobs and receive therapy.

This article is paid for and produced in collaboration with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veteran service organizations and leading veteran champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the sixth installment in a series focusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.

Looking for Housing or Affordable Healthcare? Your Local Library Is Here to Help

Leah Esguerra is a licensed family and marriage therapist, but instead of heading to an office every day to soothe couples’ marital tensions, she reports to the San Francisco Public Library. There she roams the stacks, looking for patrons who might need her help. Some of these patrons are homeless and are looking for a safe place to stay for the day. Others are actively looking for resources, such as showers and food, or just a place to warm up for a while.
No matter their need, Esguerra embraces them all. “Public libraries are sometimes called the last bastion of democracy,” she says. “It’s a community living room where everyone is welcome.”
Esguerra is the nation’s first official library social worker. She was hired by the San Francisco Public Library in 2009, after the collapse of the nation’s economy wiped out jobs and made housing unaffordable for many people. “The housing crisis will always [be a problem here], because there’s not enough houses for people who are on a limited income, are marginalized or are a challenge to house because of mental health and substance abuse issues,” she says.
Esguerra had been working for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health in a community mental health clinic when the city’s public library system reached out to the agency, looking for ways to address the issue of patrons who appeared to be homeless. Some of these library goers had obvious substance abuse or mental health problems, and some were using the library’s bathrooms to wash up or take a nap. Other patrons were aggravated by their presence, and the library staff didn’t feel equipped to handle the situation. The Department of Public Health asked Esguerra if she wanted to try working at the library with people who might need social-service support there, and she agreed to give it a go.
Almost a decade later, Esguerra is still at the main branch of the San Francisco library. And as the number of homeless patrons has ticked up, so has her staff — Esguerra currently oversees a team of seven people who are employed as part-time health-and-safety associates, all of whom have some experience with homelessness themselves.
Jennifer Keys is one such associate, having struggled with mental health issues in the past. Now she works for Esguerra and recently got certified as a peer specialist in mental health. “To be homeless is a full-time job,” says Keys. “The housing crisis here is awful, and the prerequisite for [subsidized] housing is very high.” Nevertheless, her team has helped 116 people find permanent housing since the social-work program began.  
Similar library-outreach programs have sprung up in other big cities over the past few years, among them Denver, New York, Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as in smaller communities like Pima County, Arizona, and Georgetown, Texas. “We take pride in being the first in the country, and we’re even considered a national model and blueprint for many other libraries,” Esguerra says. “A lot of times when other libraries start their programs, they call San Francisco.”

Library 2
Nonprofit Lava Mae works with the San Francisco Public Library to offer free showers and other amenities to the homeless.

Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, director of library and community services in Palo Alto, California, and current president of the Public Library Association, agrees that the number of libraries that offer outreach programs is on the rise, though she says that the Public Library Association doesn’t track that data. (CityLab reported in 2016 that 24 public libraries across the country offer outreach services.)
“I think what’s really interesting is, in the face of shrinking budgets from every sector of local government, libraries have had to look for creative ways to solve whatever issues are facing them,” Ziesenhenne says. “And as libraries have become more responsive to community needs, it’s interesting how libraries have become community connectors too.”
Maurice Freedman, a former president of the American Library Association, echoes that sentiment. “Libraries are the great democratic equalizer, as anyone can just walk in and sit down,” he says. “It’s the only public service agency that’s not interested in your name and address.”
Not all libraries that employ social workers cater solely to homeless patrons. The Richland Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina, hired a part-time social worker when the Affordable Care Act was introduced in 2013, and people started coming in with questions about different healthcare plans. That part-time employee was soon overwhelmed, and Sharita Moultrie was hired when the branch decided they needed a full-time social worker who specialized in healthcare issues.

“Libraries are the great democratic equalizer. It’s the only public service agency that’s not interested in your name and address.”

— Maurice Freedman, former president of the American Library Association

“There was a great need in the community to be able to sit down one-on-one and talk [to an expert on healthcare], to find options tailored to them,” Moultrie says. “We found that in addition to people needing info about the market, some people also needed help with signing up for food stamps, housing or getting bus tickets so they could look for jobs. If they come through our doors, we do our best to help them.”  
Patrick Lloyd is the community resources coordinator at the public library in Georgetown, Texas, a small city about 30 miles north of Austin. He was hired in 2015 when his boss noticed an increase in homeless patrons and people coming in “seeking answers to questions about things that lie outside the library.” In the case of Georgetown, its population essentially doubled over the past decade, Lloyd says, pushing it from “rural” to “urban” on the 2010 census, and so with that came “big city issues” for a place that doesn’t have its own shelter system or reliable public transportation. So the library stepped into the gap, providing patrons with information on everything from hiring a lawyer to earning a GED. The library also loans out bicycles, hosts live music events and has a “mobile library” for patrons who have mobility issues.
“People come in and have questions about books or computers, they ask a librarian,” says Lloyd. “But if they have questions about ESL classes or a low-cost attorney, I help them.”
In Pima County, Arizona, the local library faced a different issue: People who needed medical attention. So instead of a social worker, they hired registered nurses. “Pima is in a rural part of Arizona where it’s difficult to get access to health care,” Esguerra says. That’s not an issue in San Francisco, she adds, as there is a free medical clinic right across the street from the library.
The San Francisco library has partnered with organizations like Lava Mae, which brings buses outfitted with free showers to the library every week, and they also organize a “pop-up village” every two months where people can get access to resources like free dental care, glasses and the like.
“It’s all about our community, and right now our community is in need,” Keys says. “So we let people know that they have some place to go.”

How Running Got 6,000 Homeless People Back on Their Feet

Hector Torres’s world was shattered when he learned his 29-year-old son had died. The former Marine and avid runner was driving home from work when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. The loss sent Hector into a grief spiral as he abandoned his life as a truck driver in Connecticut to wander the streets of New York City without a home.
“In the process of losing my son, I lost reality,” Torres says. “For about a month, I was wandering the city not knowing where I was at.”
Ten months later, Torres began to piece his life back together. While residing in the New York City Rescue Mission, Torres became a member of Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that combats homelessness through running programs. Founded in 2007, the organization works with shelters in 12 cities nationwide to recruit members interested in changing their lives for the better. Teams meet three times a week at 5:45 a.m., and members who maintain at least a 90 percent attendance record for the first 30 days become eligible for job training, financial aid and other life-building opportunities.
“Nobody runs alone,” says executive director Terence Gerchberg. “The point of this group is not to outrun somebody; it’s to uplift somebody. It’s meeting people where they are.”
Watch the video above to see how running transformed Torres’s life.