Austin's homeless crisis is so dire, a nonprofit built an $18 million tiny home village to get the chronically homeless off the streets. Take a look inside Community First Village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderResident Robin Draper is one of many at Community First finding a meaningful life off the streets.
  • On the east side of Austin, Texas, 180 formerly homeless residents live in 200-square-foot tiny homes at Community First Village.
  • They pay rent that averages about $US300 a month, go to work thanks to on-site employment opportunities, and feed off of a 2-acre farm.
  • The village is the brainchild of founder Alan Graham, who spent years serving the city’s homeless before pooling $US18 million in privately-donated funds to construct Community First in 2015.
  • It’s not the first tiny home village used to house homeless populations in the US, but it is still unique in its concept.
  • As the name implies, the project takes a community-first – a spinoff of the housing-first term- approach to create a sense of community amongst residents.
  • “There’s a philosophy that if we build housing and then put people in housing, that that mitigates the problem,” Graham told Business Insider. But he said it takes more than just homes.
  • Take a look inside the tiny home community.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.


On a sunny Thursday morning in Austin, Texas, Robin Draper is scurrying across Community First Village preparing tiny homes for their new, soon-to-be-formerly-homeless tenants.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper gets ready to hop in a golf cart she uses to navigate through the village.

The 27-acre village houses the most vulnerable of the capital city’s homeless population, and in an hour more will come off the streets and move into their approximately 200-square-foot abodes.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper makes the bed in a home that a new resident will soon move into.

Draper fiddles with a pot of flowers under a windowsill and neatly organizes the incoming residents’ toiletries, food, and other items in the home.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper prepares a home for a new resident.

She can relate to the new residents that are moving in — Draper was homeless for years, weaving in and out of rehab centres and housing services before becoming a resident and staff member at Community First.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThis tiny home will soon have a new tenant.

“It was so hard to be homeless,” Draper said. “You had to do everything. You had to hustle for everything — shoes, socks. I mean it was just brutal.”

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper sits on her front stoop at Community First Village.

The Community First project has been ushering in a portion of Austin’s chronic homeless population into homes on its property in East Austin since 2015.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA pathway winds through the rows of tiny homes.

Austin has seen rapid growth in recent years, especially in the tech sector, and an increase in housing prices has helped spur a rise in homelessness.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA view of Downtown Austin.

Source: Business Insider


According to a KVUE Austin report, the homeless population grew from 6,232 to 7,992 between 2013 and 2018 at a rate of 28.2%. That’s more than double the rate that the city’s overall population grew during that time.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA view of Downtown Austin.

Source: KVUE


Austin’s rise in homelessness is comparable to San Francisco’s — another city known for its urban homeless crisis — where homelessness rose by about 30% since 2017.

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesA woman walks past a homeless person laying on the footpath in San Francisco, California.

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle


Alan Graham, Community First founder and CEO of its Christian-based parent organisation, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, picked up on that urgency after years of serving Austin’s homeless community prior to launching Community First Village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderGraham is pictured inside the village.

And while he told Business Insider that affordable housing, living wages, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol addiction are all very real factors included in the conversation surrounding homelessness, there’s another source of trauma that is to blame.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home with a blue door in the village.

“We believe that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family,” Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA pathway winds through the rows of tiny homes.

Every person that the organisation has moved off of the streets of Austin has come from some kind of traumatic family background, Graham said, which means that providing food and shelter is important, but addressing a need for genuine human connection is the key.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderBennie Parks and Larry Crawford sit in the auto shop in the village.

“Until we connect those dots, the transactional things that we try to do to solve the unsolvable is putting a Band Aid on a carotid artery, in my humble opinion,” Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderUte Dittemer and a fellow artist in the art studio in the village.

So the innovative project takes a community-first — a spinoff of the housing-first term — approach to helping its residents exit homelessness for good.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA pathway winds through the rows of tiny homes.

The entire project, from the village layout to its housing structure to its on-site programs and employment opportunities, is designed to foster a sense of community amongst its residents.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA pathway winds through the rows of tiny homes.

“What we say is that we built a 250-bedroom, $US18 million mansion,” Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

The fact that residents all share similar life experiences, with many having struggled with trauma, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, also helps each other heal and cope, Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderMechanics work on a car in the on-site auto shop.

And it seems to be working — Draper said there’s about an 87% retention rate in the village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper opens the door to her home in the village while her kitten looks on.

On top of that, deep-pocketed donors believe in the vision — the $US18 million needed for the initial build came from privately-donated funds. The same goes for the village’s annual operating costs, which Graham said clock in at $US6 million.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderAn old truck bearing the village’s moniker is on display in the village.

Source: People


Graham said that there’s no government funding involved, which frees Community First of certain governmental requirements that are usually tied up in housing projects for the homeless in the US.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

But Graham said national leaders have been among the visitors that have ventured to witness the Community First model for themselves, which Graham said is part of the grand vision of the village: to pass on that information in hopes that the community concept could be replicated elsewhere.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper inside the community library.

“The goal is to teach — our goal is to let people know that there are other ways to deal with this,” Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA communal space amongst the rows of tiny homes at Community First.

There are about 180 residents and a number of what are called Missionals — on-site Christian missionaries serving the residents — living amongst each other in around 240 units, most of which are tiny homes and some are RVs.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe view of a cul-de-sac from Draper’s front porch.

Graham counts himself among the village’s residents — he and his wife, who also works full-time on the site, sold their home in an affluent West Austin neighbourhood to move into the village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderGraham in front of his house in Community First.

Each home costs on average anywhere from $US25,000 to $US40,000 to build, Thomas Aitchison, the communications director for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, told Business Insider.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

The residents have their “bedroom,” or home, and can reach their bathroom “down the hallway” (there’s no plumbing in the tiny homes) by walking a short distance down the road to one of the five communal restroom and shower facilities.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderOne of the communal showers inside the village.

There’s a “media room,” or outdoor movie theatre, up toward the front of the property where residents and the public can view movie screenings.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe outdoor movie theatre.

There’s an art studio for residents and Missionals to sculpt, paint, draw, and potter.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderAn artist works in the art studio inside the village.

And communal kitchens and laundry units are scattered throughout the neighbourhood.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderOne of the communal kitchens inside the village.

Two acres of organic gardens provide fresh produce that’s given to residents at regular farmer’s markets within the community.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderPart of the farm in the village.

“I call it the better-than-Whole-Foods department,” Aitchison said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderPart of the farm in the village.

And hundreds of volunteers come out weekly to help out with whatever needs tending to, Aitchison said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderStreet signs in the village.

Local support and involvement have proven to be an important element in the village’s success so far, Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderShopkeepers Felicia Dodd and Rebecca Schneider staff the Community Market.

About 10 or so tiny homes along the front edge of the village are listed on Airbnb for rent to allow the public the opportunity to visit and experience for themselves what the village is like — and to interact with the residents, Aitchison said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe ‘Ruby’ tiny home vacation rental has a ‘Wizard of Oz’ theme.

The rentals back up to the outdoor movie theatre. The cinema company Alamo Drafthouse donated the screen and equipment used for regular movie showings.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe outdoor movie theatre backs up to tiny homes that are listed for rent on Airbnb.

Pro-bono lawyers in the area visit to help residents prepare their end-of-life documents. Aitchison said most residents legally opt to be laid to rest in what is called a columbarium.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe columbarium in the village.

It’s where residents can choose to have their cremated remains interred when they die. It stands in a central location in the village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper said she knew all of the residents that are now interred on the property.

Stylists from a local mum-and-pop hair salon visit the property regularly to receive residents as clients in an on-site barbershop.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe on-site barbershop in the village.

And local philanthropist and billionaire John Paul DeJoria — the mastermind behind the Paul Mitchell empire — donates his top-notch hair products to the salon for stylists to use when residents come in for service.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe barbershop is stocked with donated Paul Mitchell hair products.

DeJoria also recently donated a whopping $US1.6 million to the village’s Phase II expansion that will see 300 more residents move into the village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA construction worker drives through the area where Phase ll will expand.

Six of those new homes will be built by Austin startup Icon, which constructs 3D-printed homes that Icon cofounder Evan Loomis told Business Insider can be completed in about 27 hours.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderAn Icon 3D-printed home serves as the welcome centre at Community First.

DeJoria’s donation will specifically be funneled into the construction of a new building that will serve as the Entrepreneurial Hub of the village’s existing Community Works program.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderCoasters are displayed for sale in the Community Market.

Through it, residents can sell handcrafted goods, like jewellery, woodwork, ironwork, and other items. Residents receive 100% of the profit from the sales of the goods they craft.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderJewellery made by residents is displayed for sale in the Community Market in the village.

It’s all part of the village’s broader goal of providing residents with an avenue to rediscover a sense of purpose in life and a way to earn what the folks at Community First call a “dignified income.”

Katie Canales/Business InsiderResident Ute Dittemer is pictured in the village’s art studio.

Resident Ute Dittemer’s paintings are some of the most well-known pieces of art on the property.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderResident Ute Dittemer is pictured in the village’s art studio.

She told Business Insider that she sells some of her paintings for around $US80 through the Community Works program and overall makes good profit from them.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderResident Ute Dittemer is pictured in the village’s art studio.

Dittemer said she didn’t receive academic training for her art. She’s entirely self-taught, having picked up a paintbrush long before she became homeless.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDittemer shows us a photo of a bowl she was working on.

A German native, she moved to the US in 2005. She and her husband experienced homelessness before getting involved in the Community First project.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderResident Ute Dittemer is pictured in the village’s art studio.

“They should make it a requirement that everybody in the US has to be homeless for at least six months,” Dittemer said. “You would see how fast it would be eliminated.”

Katie Canales/Business InsiderResident Ute Dittemer is pictured in the village’s art studio.

The on-site auto shop, which is open to the public, works similarly to the Community Works program in that it gives residents an easily-accessible place of employment.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderMobile Loaves and Fishes staff member Larry Crawford, 55, heads up the auto shop.

Bennie Parks, aged 52, works in the garage two days out of the week performing oil changes and car inspections, among other services.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderBennie Parks is pictured in the village’s auto shop.

Parks said he first became homeless after a bad divorce from his wife years ago. He said he struggled with drug use and drug dealing as well. But about a year ago, he said he was accepted into the Community First program and moved into the village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderParks is pictured in the village’s auto shop.

Depending on the hours, mechanics can earn up to $US1,500 a month working in the on-site auto shop — and it gives Parks regular access to a lifelong joy of his: cars.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderParks and another mechanic tend to a customer’s car in the village’s auto shop.

“It was like finally, you know, I’ve got someplace to go and lay my head down — I can start being a human being again,” Parks said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderParks is pictured in the village’s auto shop.

That second chance has been afforded to many of the residents that live here.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper prepares a unit in the village for a new resident that’s moving in soon.

Draper may be one of the best examples of that.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper in a golf cart inside the village.

Draper said she was homeless for years and struggled with alcohol and drug abuse while living on the streets of first Houston and then Austin.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper stands in her kitchen inside her home.

But she said she officially got off the streets in 2009, the same year she got into the Community First project.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper reaches for a photo on display in her bedroom.

She worked as a contractor in the village before becoming such an integral part of the community that she moved onto the property as a Missional with her nine-year-old daughter, Avery.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderAvery’s hat hangs on the golf cart Draper uses to drive through the community.

They live in an olive green-painted home with a cat, a rabbit, and a dog named Scruffy.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper sits on the stoop of her home inside the village.

The efforts made by Graham and his organisation to house and serve the homeless haven’t come without some pushback.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA neighbour’s home is seen from Draper’s front porch.

Graham said the city of Austin has always been supportive of the project’s mission, but some nearby residents felt otherwise.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

“We always came up against the ‘not in my backyard’ movement — and that’s a killer,” Graham said, referring to a national sentiment among some who wish to keep housing for the homeless and lower-income folk away from their neighbourhoods.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA communal seating area in the centre of the village.

Source: The New York Times


In April 2008, the city of Austin unanimously voted to grant Graham a long term ground lease on a 17-acre campsite where the city’s homeless could live in tent shelters, Graham said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe outdoor movie theatre.

That’s how Draper met Graham — he invited her to live on the campground, which isn’t far from where Community First Village is now located.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper stands in her bedroom inside her home.

But then at a neighbourhood meeting, angry residents not wanting that kind of project near them were in an uproar over the 17-acre ground lease.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA seating area is in every communal kitchen on the property.

“We were assaulted and spit on,” Graham said. He had to be escorted out of the meeting by police, and the proposal for the ground lease was suspended.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA wind chime inscribed with a Bible passage hangs on a resident’s porch.

It took four more years for Graham to find a new piece of land, but he said he eventually closed on the property that is now Community First Village.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA pathway winds through rows of tiny homes inside the village.

And this time residents would live in tiny homes instead of tents. Ground officially broke on the site in October 2014.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

“It’s totally different out here because we have an office and property manager and there are rules,” Draper said. “This is a different scenario.”

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA laundry unit is attached to a communal building that also holds showers and restrooms.

Graham said the people moving into the village have to fit a certain criteria: unaccompanied, no children (unless you’re a Missional, like Draper,) have to have a disabling condition, and have lived on the streets of Austin for at least one year.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA resident holds a plate of food in the auto shop.

Graham said on average, Community First is capable of onboarding about 10 people a month.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

The village is strict on rent payments. Not paying the average $US300 in rent is one of the ways a resident will get kicked out of the village, Draper said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper prepares a unit in the village for a new resident that’s moving in soon.

“We love you, and we want you to make it, but if you’re not doing your part, then what about the rest of the community?” Draper said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA pathway winds through rows of tiny homes inside the village.

Partaking in drugs and alcohol though is permitted, provided that you do it in the privacy of your home.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

But Graham said residents are expected to behave civilly, and there are still efforts to aggressively minimise the amount of drugs that enter the community.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA tiny home inside the village.

Draper said that her past drug and alcohol use is behind her.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA photo of Draper, her nine-year-old daughter Avery, and another daughter hangs on the fridge inside Draper’s home.

She works in the community, spends time with her neighbours, and every other weekend, she visits her partner of 13 years in jail.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper at the entrance to the community library.

He’s currently in prison serving a two-year term for a DWI.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA photo of Draper and her partner in her home.

Draper said that she hopes her partner can move into the village sometime in the future — especially to spend more time with Avery, who is his daughter with Draper.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA photo of Draper’s daughter in her home in the village.

On the day we met with Draper, she said she was hoping to hear news about a shortened jail sentence for him, who’d been imprisoned since February.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper’s dog, Scruffy, sits on the couch inside her home.

“I think today might be a good day for us,” Draper said.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderDraper on the front porch of her home inside the village.

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