AN INNOVATIVE way to deal with the problem of homelessness in America is slowly emerging among charitable groups committed to helping the unsheltered, and so far the results have been encouraging.
The old method of having homeless individuals “earn” shelter by successfully completing a series of social service interventions was not working. The new method focuses less on the homelessness, and more on its root cause: social and spiritual isolation.
“People become homeless when they run out of relationships,” Meghann Cotter, executive servant-leader of the Fredericksburg-based Micah Ecumenical Ministries, told the Free Lance-Star. “If I lost my job or became seriously disabled, somebody in my family would take care of me. But we take that for granted. That’s not always available.”
The new approach, she explained, aims to rebuild homeless individuals’ social and spiritual capital by creating a community where they can heal together and start to repair their tattered self-worth.
Cotter has spent the last six months researching a village for the chronically homeless on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The 27-acre Community First Village was started by Mobil Loaves and Fishes (mlf.org), a charity that has delivered more than five million meals and other necessities to the city’s homeless population since 1998.
Each village resident pays rent (which runs between $230 and $450 per month) for a tiny house, RV or park home. The village has a communal garden, workshops, an on-site clinic and a bus stop. Residents enjoy communal meals and sell their handiwork—including organic produce and art—in a small store frequented by the public. They’ve even adopted homeless pets from Austin’s animal shelter and volunteered to man the food truck that started the whole enterprise.
The village is funded mostly by private donations, Cotter said, with some churches donating all the labor and materials to build a tiny house as part of their mission of charitable outreach. “I honestly have not seen anything like it. I’m incredibly inspired by it,” she added. “It has not only changed the lives of the residents, it has changed and expanded how the rest of the community responds to them.”
Dozens of formerly homeless people also live in 30 tiny houses donated by charitable groups at the Licton Springs Tiny House Village in Seattle, a city grappling with the third highest homeless population in the nation. The gated village—which is supervised by the Low-Income Housing Institute, a local nonprofit group—is a “low barrier” community, so people are not evicted for drug or alcohol abuse. Clean needles and doses of Narcan are readily available.
The need for such villages should spark a national conversation about why so many Americans have become “disconnected, disassociated and displaced” from their families and communities, Cotter says. Rising rates of depression, suicide and substance abuse point to the irony of widespread despair and isolation, all the more poignant in an age of 24/7 social media.
But social media cannot repair broken familial and social bonds. “We as a society have forgotten how to be connected with one another, to be in a relationship with each other,” Cotter explained.
Could such a village model work in Fredericksburg? Cotter cautioned that a not-in-my-backyard attitude is always a challenge when trying to help the homeless, who may have criminal backgrounds in addition to mental health and substance-abuse issues. But “I would love to see something like that here,” she responded, adding that “with the right hearts, minds and will of God, I think it could.”
Considering that the Fredericksburg region’s homeless population has not significantly decreased in the past few years, and more traditional interventions have not prevented hundreds of people from living on the streets, it’s at least worth a try.