by Megan Giller • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
In the late ’90s, entrepreneur Alan Graham spent most nights handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Austin’s homeless. As a recent convert to Catholicism, he’d jumped into the social-outreach aspect of his faith with both feet…and with both hands holding a lot of bread and nut butter.
By 1999, Graham and five other co-founders (including their homeless friend, Houston Flake) had officially formed the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes and, with the help of a small army of volunteers, fed the homeless out of a 1997 Ford pick-up truck about 15 times per month.
Fast-forward 14 years, and Mobile Loaves & Fishes now boasts 16 food trucks in five cities—11 of which are located right here in Austin—operating twice a day. Instead of peanut butter and jelly, though, the trucks serve tacos, heartier sandwiches, fruit and drinks, and also provide personal hygiene items and books. But their main ministry is listening to the people they feed. “You take a sandwich out, ask a question and listen to the answer,” Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Heidi Sloan says—adding that the most important part is the communication, the hug or the handshake, that lets their followers know someone cares.
Graham soon discovered that enclosed spaces on wheels could be used for other things, too. In 2005, on a hunting trip with his son, he spent the night in a tiny RV. When he woke at dawn and saw the sun streaming through the windows, he realized that in this small spot, he had everything he needed to live, “plus a lock on the door,” Sloan adds. “There’s a place to put your toothbrush, a place to cook your dinner, a place to put your feet up—and you’re secure.”
Graham thought that it might be the perfect type of dwelling for the displaced homeless population. He bought his first trailer as soon as he got back to town, and the Community First! program was born. Currently, Community First! houses about 45 previously homeless folks, and has successfully provided housing to almost 100 disabled, chronically homeless Austinites since its inception.
But the program is about more than simply providing a safe place to live. “We can meet a physical need and lift people up into stable housing,” Sloan says. “But when they walk out of that door, what do they walk into? Meaninglessness? Chaos? Is there a reason to get up? Sometimes the answer is no.” To address this concern, the nonprofit started construction on a 27-acre master-planned community to house 250 of Austin’s chronically homeless. (That’s about a quarter of the homeless population.) Of course, this isn’t just any community; Graham likes to think big. There will be three different housing models, a chicken coop, a beehive, an aquaponics fish operation, a woodworking shop, an art trailer, walking trails, medical facilities, places of worship, an outdoor theater, a bed-and-breakfast (for mission visits) and even Wi-Fi. “Instead of being put off to the side, culturally, these productive people will now have dignity and purpose,” Sloan says. “This will be a place for them to meet in health instead of falling into old habits and patterns.”
Also part of the development plan is Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Genesis Gardens—a program that includes 25 edible gardens around the city. The program started in 2009, when fellow Christian Steven Hebbard approached Graham about helping Austin’s homeless obtain access to fresh, high-quality food. Now, four days a week, up to 90 volunteers and homeless people meet at the different sites to plant, harvest, compost, cook, clean and more. Some of the Genesis Gardens are housed at Community First! Village so that, when completed, the community will have edible gardens on-site and access to a teaching tool for sustainable agriculture.
So how does this modest, 25-person nonprofit shoulder and fund all of these projects and programs—especially the newest utopian community? Mobile Loaves & Fishes is on its second round of funding for the 5th-wheel RVs, micro-homes and canvas-sided cottages being built at Community First! Village, but the vast majority of the other programs are run almost entirely by generous, involved volunteers. Sloan says all of the volunteers have a great time, but some inevitably ask if they can work directly with a homeless person next time. She says she always smiles and tells them, “You just did.”