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

A Startup With Eyes on the (Tiny) Prize

Akili Kelly and his wife, Ashlee, know a thing or two about new beginnings. The Jackson, Mississippi, couple recently welcomed their daughter, Alex, into the world. They also launched a startup: TinyJXN (pronounced “Tiny Jackson”), which plans to develop the city’s first tiny-house community. The process, so far, has taken over a year.
The Kellys met as grad students at Jackson State University and have put down roots in the city. As recent graduates with debt, they understand that Jackson’s difficulties in retaining an educated workforce is largely due to the lack of affordable housing options. So they started to explore the concept of tiny homes, which eventually blossomed into their side business.
“I was interested to see how you could squeeze everything you need into a smaller space, which is also more economical,” Akili says. “We want this to be a housing option that people in this community could benefit from.”
Sarah Stripp is TinyJXN’s first client. As tiny homes are a new concept for the city, Stripp’s challenges with homeownership and TinyJXN’s challenges with operating a startup have often been one and the same. The Kellys spent months working with Stripp to secure a loan and break ground on her tiny home. Banks weren’t accustomed to issuing such a modest construction loan, and local institutions didn’t always immediately grasp the concept.
But now, the Kellys have applied for a building permit and expect to begin construction on Stripp’s new home next month.
Like many neighborhoods throughout Jackson, whose population has been declining for decades, the area where Stripp’s tiny home will be built is pockmarked with empty lots. But where others might see blight, the Kellys see an opportunity to improve their city in a way that benefits both aspiring homeowners and longtime locals.
As Akili says, “You have to be able to see beyond what’s currently there.”
Watch the video above to see how Akili and Ashlee Kelly are turning their entrepreneurial dream into a reality, while fulfilling a need in the city they call home.


This content was produced in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which works in entrepreneurship and education to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back to their communities.

These Frat Brothers Are Using Tiny Houses to Change the Lives of the Homeless

When the idea of frat brothers comes to mind, most of us probably conjure up images of crazy college parties. However, one fraternity is defying the stereotype and extending the notion of brotherhood to an unlikely group: the homeless.
Huntsville, Ala. has a substantial homeless population and a large portion of it is comprised of veterans. Fortunately, the Phi Kappa Phi fraternity at the University of Alabama – Huntsville has a solution in mind. In operation for less than a year, the members of frat have been working toward creating a tiny homes village for those without shelter in their community.
The idea began to develop after members of the group encountered a homeless man at a local Sonic restaurant. Moved by the experience, the frat brothers started having regular meals with various members of the homeless community, which inspired them to become more involved.
“Me and my brothers were like, ‘we want to do something about this,’” Phi Kappa Phi president Taylor Reed tells WHNT News.
With the help of Foundation for Tomorrow and the Help Our Veterans and Civilians organization, Phi Kappa Phi began plans for a tiny homes village, which will consist of multiple residences that are less than 500 square feet, are mobile and are fully equipped. To create an inclusive feeling, the village will also include a community garden that will be maintained by the residents as well as a space where a group meal will be consumed at least once a week.
Each unit costs about $5,000 to build, and about 30 homes can fit on one acre of land, which is the amount that the Foundation for Tomorrow is hoping to receive from the city of Huntsville. Alabama Center for Sustainable Energy has already volunteered to supply solar panels for the homes. Further, the frat brothers plan to build all of the homes themselves with the assistance of their fellow community members.
In order to raise the funds, Phi Kappa Phi is currently operating a website fundraiser. Their goal? To raise $10,000 and, as of November 19, they have raised $6,493.
For Help Our Homeless Veterans and Civilians CEO Rusty Loiselle, these homes are a rare and needed opportunity.
“Get them out of cardboard boxes and into these tiny homes while they go through re-training and get the assistance they need,” Loiselle tells WHNT News. “These tiny homes are a step towards nice solid housing, it’s a step up.”
MORE: Portland is About to Get Tons of Tiny Homes That Can Shelter the Homeless

Portland is About to Get Tons of Tiny Homes That Can Shelter the Homeless

On any ordinary night in Portland, Ore., an estimated 4,000 people sleep on the city’s streets or in shelters, according to the Portland Housing Bureau.
This year, as the Rose City passes its deadline for the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, a growing number of locals are growing frustrated with a lack of solutions.
Which is why local entrepreneur Tim Cornell decided to repurpose a project designed for Haiti and retrofit a blueprint for urban areas such as Portland. Cornell’s company, Techdwell, builds tiny, economical homes that can be assembled in just a day’s time with limited construction experience.
The houses, which include just a small kitchen, a bathroom and a couch that turns into a bed, costs about $12,000 to build and can also accommodate families, according to Fast Company.
Thanks to Cornell’s persistence, this type of residence may soon be available to Portland’s large homeless population in less than a year. After months of zoning processes and meetings with citiy officials and community boards, Techdwell’s plan is expected to pass a final zoning approval. Should the plan get the green light, the city will break ground on the first tiny home community in February 2015.

“I said, look, we can do a community — 25 homes, 40 homes — in an infill lot, making it look acceptable,” Cornell tells Fast Company. “Not a camp, not tents, but aesthetically pleasing. Just do something — here’s a plan that’s feasible.”

The company is already selling homes to individuals looking for a simpler way of life, with eco-friendly features including solar panels, rainwater collection and composting toilets. Cornell is also in talks with Washington state officials to start erecting homes for disaster victims in the wake of the devastation left from recent wildfires and floods.

Of course Techdwell’s model is not the first of it’s kind. Similar projects for homeless have cropped up in Wisconsin and Texas, as well as New York state.

As Portland’s decade-old program to help the homeless expires, maybe Techdwell’s vision is the key to a future plan that’s affordable and sustainable — increasing its chance of success.

MORE: Social Enterprise Incubator Hatches in Portland, Oregon

You Won’t Believe the Surprising New Uses for Old Shipping Containers

Excess shipping containers are a big problem — literally. According to Jason Blevins of the Denver Post, there are 34.5 million of them in the world. Shipping companies use each one for a decade or two, then the hulking steel boxes are destined to spend eternity in a landfill.
But more people are starting to rethink what these containers could be used for, including Rhino Cubed, founded by businesswoman Jan Burton and Sam Austin, an architect who specializes in using reclaimed materials. Launched on Earth Day in Louisville, Colorado, Rhino Cubed builds small, artful homes out of discarded shipping containers.
The company offers three models of 160-square foot shipping container homes, including a $60,000 deluxe version that contains art and metalwork and two less expensive styles with added flooring, doors, and walls. Environmentally-friendly aspects of the tiny houses include solar panels that generate energy for a refrigerator and a water tank to catch rainwater.
“We really wanted to create something that would work off-the-grid,” Burton told the Denver Post. “I like to think we can preserve Mother Nature while still living in the middle of it.”
Another Colorado project making use of old shipping containers is the 25th & Larimer building, which opened in Denver last November. The development was created out of 29 repurposed steel shipping containers, and its first tenant was Topo Designs, a company known for its rugged rucksacks and backpacks that are manufactured in the Rocky Mountain state to ensure factory worker safety. Jedd Rose of Topo Designs told Ricardo Baca of the Denver Post, “It fits within our ethos, because it’s simple. Shipping containers are already out there. You can reuse them. They’re modular. It’s such a great idea.”
With shipping container projects recently built everywhere from London to Las Vegas, it sounds like the global backlog of these steel boxes is starting to ease.
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Does It Take a (Tiny) Village to End Homelessness in America?

At 144 square feet each, the 30 tiny homes in Quixote Village, aren’t exactly what you’d call luxury. There are showers, laundry facilities, a large vegetable garden and a communal kitchen. But for the 29 disabled and formerly homeless adults who are living there now, it’s their first real home in half a decade.
As Yes! Magazine reports, this nomadic group finally found a permanent home in Olympia, Wash. last Christmas after moving from parking lot to parking lot every 90 days for the last five years. These homes cost $19,000 each to build.
MORE: The Garden Cottages in Portland, Ore., show us how fulfilling sustainable living can be
As we previously reported, housing the homeless can cost significantly less than leaving them on the streets. Per the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “homelessness causes illnesses and makes existing mental and physical illnesses worse, leading to expensive treatment and medical services. Permanent supportive housing improves physical and mental health, which reduces the need for these services, particularly expensive inpatient mental health care and hospitalization.”
Quixote Village is just one example of the national tiny-house movement. There are villages sprouting up in Newfield, NY. with 18 single-unit homes that cost about $10,000 each to build. The Occupy Madison Village in Madison, Wis. has 11 even smaller buildings (at 98 square feet) planned that cost $5,000 each. It’s amazing how something so small can be the start of something so big.

Meet the Artist Who’s Using Garbage to Do Something Incredible for the Homeless

Gregory Kloehn is solving two major problems at the same time with his art: The Oakland, Calif.-based artist salvages illegally discarded trash and turns it into mobile shelters, which he gives to the city’s homeless.
As the Oakland Tribune reports, 43-year-old Kloehn creates the structures with waste material that he finds on the streets. These little spaces—many of which are insulated with pizza delivery bags—have windows, a mirror and even wheels so they can be taken anywhere by the owner.
One homeless woman named “Wonder” told the Tribune that the mobile shelter was a huge upgrade from her old home, a couch and a tarp that covered it. “This is the best home I’ve had in five years,” she said. There are about 10 of these shelters around the city and Kloehn plans to build more. One person’s trash really is another person’s treasure.
MORE: At Only 364 Sq. Ft., This Tiny Home Is the Start of Something Big