Like most cities across this nation, our shelter system is over-burdened and lacks adequate resources to effectively address the problem. There are roughly 220 shelter beds available to serve Richmond and her surrounding counties, and they're rarely available to the growing number of neighbors experiencing homelessness; currently estimated at roughly 600+ on any given night. "Why?" you ask? Because our shelter system, by design, lacks sufficient beds to satisfy the true need, and rarely has available beds for our neighbors struggling to ascend out of their homeless nightmare. It was never intended to be a longterm waypoint, but rather a brief stop on the ascent to transitional housing on the way to affordable housing.
Meant as a first step out of homelessness and the shelter system, "transitional housing" has become a place where many of our friends find themselves stuck, due to the lack of "affordable housing" to move "up" into. HUD-funded programs like halfway houses, Permanent Supportive Housing and Rapid Re-Housing are designed to transition neighbors from the woods, streets, and shelters into a structured housing environment that guides them "back" into society. Because funding is limited, so is the availability of beds in the halfway houses. Likewise, there are limited apartments available from landlords willing to accept vouchers; government promises to pay the rent on behalf of tenants participating in these programs.
Few builders and developers devote their energy and resources to building "affordable" housing. Why? The profit margins reaped from building housing units truly affordable to the lowest income earners and those relying upon government subsidies are generally not appealing. Hence, most of them focus on highly profitable luxury communities and homes. The results are seen in our current shortage of housing that is truly affordable to those struggling to climb out of transitional housing, subsidized "Section 8" housing, and the shelter system.
The philosophy behind "Housing 1st", very simply put, is that we can't help, heal, or cure someone struggling to survive each day outdoors, until we help them satisfy their need for shelter. We couldn't agree more! AND, we believe there's much more...and it is built around community.
We've seen firsthand what happens when a neighbor living outdoors is plucked out of their familiar surroundings and planted in a new community, in an attempt to help them re-assimilate into society. After years of flying a sign on the same corner, becoming a fixture in the community and known by name by countless who pass them each day...they become withdrawn and recluse when moved to unfamiliar and often unfriendly surroundings where those they know are nowhere near. The results are often a downward spiral of interest in life and becoming part of a community with whom they lack anything in common. One friend, Steve, resorted to riding two metro buses to get back to his corner, his community where he "fit in", to fly his sign interact with passersby, buy his 40 oz. beer, and ride two buses back to his apartment at the end of each day, where he'd avoid any contact with his new neighbors. He didn't last long in that environment, as was soon relocated to an apartment in walking distance of his old corner, where he now sits daily with a smile. He now has a home, and he's home.
What if we built a community where the residents all had something in common...homelessness? Where services and support were available for addressing addictions and mental health issues? Where housing was truly affordable, safe, tailored to the individual, and everyone paid rent? Where micro-enterprises offered opportunities to earn a dignified wage? Where surrounding communities eagerly volunteered and linked arms with residents to keep this community beautiful and sustainable? A community governed by Christian principles and respectful of all religions and beliefs systems?
This is what we observed during our visit in February of 2018 to the Community First! Village in Austin, TX. A planned community of 150 tiny houses designed and built by the best Austin has to offer, and a history of success making their formerly homeless residents finally feel at home. And this model is what we intend to pattern our Mo Hope Village after.
The photos below and in this 3-minute slideshow video were taken during our visit, and give a glimpse of what is possible.