Podcast

Episode 55 – Alan Graham, visionary behind Community First

What does it mean to be home? Alan Graham has leveraged his life’s work to answer that question. Today, Alan and Jessica discuss his revolutionary Community First! Village—a 27-acre master planned development in northeast Austin that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness.

And in this discussion about what it means to be chronically homeless, Alan teaches all of us the importance of being in community and loving our neighbor.

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey everyone, it’s Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially conscious fashion brand Noonday Collection. And this is the Going Scared podcast where we cover all things, social impact, entrepreneurship, and courage. Today’s guest is an Austin legend. His name is Alan Graham, and even though you might not be from Austin, I know you’re going to want to give this a listen, because he is the lead visionary behind Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Community First! Village. Community First! Village is a 27-acre master-planned development in Northeast Austin that provides affordable permanent housing. Also, in addition, a supportive community for men and women who are coming out of chronic homelessness.

And, if you follow me on Instagram, you saw that my word for the year, my intention for this year, is home. And what is the meaning of home? And there are so many ways that I’ve explored what does it mean to be at home in my body? What does it mean to welcome God into my home? What does it mean to linger in my own home? You guys, he ends up breaking down the word home for all of us. It is so profound, so I know you’re going to enjoy this conversation. Alan is also the author of Welcome Homeless: One Man’s Journey of Discovering the Meaning of Home.

Jessica: You know, I went to UT so I graduated 1999, and during that time I got really involved with the homeless population out on the drag. So, I’m just so thankful for you because you have really stayed with it. You’ve taken the long view, and you are changing the world right here in Austin, Texas, but many of our podcast listeners are not from Austin, so I would just love—I mean everybody here in Austin knows Mobile Loaves & Fishes, knows Community First!, knows what you’re doing. But I would love for you to just give the 101 to all of our listeners for what you’re doing.

Alan: Well, it’s kind of a 20-year-old organization founded by myself in 1998 and four of my buddies out of West Lake Hills, four white guys from West Lake Hills. We always make fun of that because we’re going out to serve the homeless from the highest income neighborhood in Austin, when we really didn’t have a clue. And that turned into a catering truck operation that now serves 1,200 meals virtually every night of the week, 365 days a year.

 

Homeless Entrepreneurial Spirit

 

In 2005, we came up with the idea to lift one chronically homeless individual up off the street corners into a recreational vehicle, into a privately-owned RV park. And I’m now sitting in the middle of a 51-acre master planned RV Park on steroids called Community First!, that’s not only setting Austin on fire, the most-talked-about neighborhood in Austin, Texas, but also gaining phenomenal national attention. And then the third leg of our operating stool is what we call community works. It’s a recognition on our part that the men and women that you see standing on our street corners begging are some of the greatest yet most ineffective entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. We won’t let them be entrepreneurs. We won’t let them sell bottles of water or newspapers or flowers or cow skulls and cow skins and velvet Elvis art. We’ve overregulated that. So that the only remaining bastion of entrepreneurialism is the first amendment free speech, right to beg. And so that in essence is our organization. And we’re here to change a lot of that stuff.

“The men and women that you see standing on our street corners begging are some of the greatest yet most ineffective entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. We won’t let them be entrepreneurs. We won’t let them sell bottles of water or newspapers or flowers or cow skulls and cow skins and velvet Elvis art. We’ve overregulated that. So that the only remaining bastion of entrepreneurialism is the first amendment free speech, right to beg.” Alan Graham

Jessica: It’s so interesting your third piece. I hadn’t thought about that, and I was just with, I had visiting with me all week, one of my friends from Uganda, one of my business partners from Uganda, and we were driving up and down the streets of Austin and other cities in Texas, and she says, ”I don’t understand, you know, in Uganda, this is where all the street vendors come and they sell and they hustle, but in America you just don’t see that. Why is that?” And I couldn’t answer that question. And so, it’s interesting. It really is this whole idea of probably whitewashing our streets.

Alan: Yeah. Well, attempting to whitewash them, and what we’ve ended up doing is blackening them. And I would much rather be sold a product or a service than be panhandled, and our friends would rather do the same as well.

Jessica: We all. Everyone, every, we all want to work. We all want the dignity of work. OK. So, I need you to really paint a picture. So, we arrive, we pull up. Imagine you are someone, you’ve never been to Community First!, you pull up and walk us through the entire master-planned development. What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What do we see around us? Really paint that picture because it’s phenomenal.

Alan: Well, I’m going to attempt to paint that picture. I can promise you that the only way to really paint that picture is for people to come here and take a peek at it, but I’m gonna do my best. You drive into the community and the first thing that you encounter is an outdoor Alamo Drafthouse movie theater with the 500-seat amphitheater, and surrounding the amphitheater is one of the largest bed and breakfast operations in the state of Texas. So, if you could imagine, putting a B&B an amphitheater and an outdoor movie theater in the middle of a community designed to lift the most despised, outcast, lost, and forgotten—that’s how our journey begins. Every Friday night is free movies to the entire city and people come from all over the place just to kind of hang out.

Our B&B is occupied about 70% of the time. It’s an incredible occupancy rate. Once you go past the B&B, we have a medical clinic and a community market, small community store, but in the community store we sell products that are made by men and women here on the property. Art work, blacksmithing, woodworking, glassblowing, pottery, leather work, jewelry making, quilting, soap making, lip balm, all that kind of goodness. And then in the last two years alone, we have distributed over a million dollars in what we call dignified income to the men and women that are working in a variety of micro enterprise’s here to overcome that begging on the street corner thing we talked about earlier.

“In the last two years alone, we have distributed over a million dollars in what we call dignified income to the men and women that are working in a variety of micro enterprise’s here to overcome that begging on the street corner.” Alan Graham

The next thing we come to is our operations building. And then inside of our operations building, we have a car care center that is sponsored by Charles Maund Toyota, one of the largest car dealerships in central Texas. And you could literally come to the village, drop your car off and go volunteer. We’ll change the oil, lube it, detail it, rotate tires, and you can get a state inspection. When you come back the money you pay will all go to the men and women that live here. Also, in that building, in the other half of that building is our art house where our pottery operation and our great artisans hang out and work. On the backside of the property is a blacksmithing shop, glassblowing shop and a woodshop. And people are creating just awesome homemade products there. We have a full-blown organic farming operation producing the finest quality food on the planet that’s free to all the men and women that live in the community. We have a culinary operation. We have eight full-blown kitchens on the property. We’re always cooking and gathering and hanging out about to start a whole coffee service here in the next week or two.

We have what we call the Unity Hall in the middle of the property. It’s a 16,000 square foot, it’s got a sanctuary, commercial kitchen, office space, meeting rooms. And then there’s 100 RVs right now and about 125 micro homes, little tiny homes that we built. We’re under construction on 24 more acres next door that’ll add another 310 homes, a giant medical clinic and some other facilities. Pretty incredible place, Jessica.

 

It Takes a Village to Make a Home

 

Jessica: It is incredible. And because you are an obvious visionary, what are we gonna see 5 years from now? Five years from now, we’re walking around. What are some of the things that we’re experiencing now?

Alan: Well, it’s a complicated issue. I mean for us, from a practical point of view, phase two will be completely full and occupied, we’ll be probably under construction on phase three at that point. From a citywide point of view, we believe very profoundly that the single greatest cause to homelessness is a profound catastrophic loss of family. It’s not drug addictions or mental health issues or affordable housing or living wages. I’d be shocked—it would be an outlier if anybody that’s listening to this podcast—if you don’t have an addict or somebody battling mental health issues in your family. We all have it. But for the most part, we don’t allow our family members to go homeless on the streets. And so, until we address the family issue, I think we’re in for a pretty rough road in front of us. But I think here in Austin, because of this model, we’re gonna be able to mitigate this in ways that other cities, unless they adopt our philosophy, are gonna struggle mitigating.

“We believe very profoundly that the single greatest cause to homelessness is a profound catastrophic loss of family. It’s not drug addictions or mental health issues or affordable housing or living wages. I’d be shocked … if you don’t have an addict or somebody battling mental health issues in your family, we all have it. But for the most part, we don’t allow our family members to go homeless on the streets.” Alan Graham

Jessica: So how are you solving the family issue?

Alan: Well, if you look at the family as the original cell of social society, it’s that place where you and I are created, and it’s that place where you and I are supposed to be formed and nurtured. What happens when a nuclear bomb is thrown into the middle of that? And anthropologically and biblically, it used to be the village that would step in and care for our family members. But over the past three or four generations, we’ve abdicated that responsibility to city hall, state government, Washington, DC. And so, what we’re saying in Community First!, which means it’s the community, it’s the village’s task to take care of these neighbors, join with us. And so that’s really the miracle of our model is empowering communities into a lifestyle of service with and alongside our homeless brothers and sisters. But we don’t have the power culturally to go all the way up stream and really have the open and honest conversation about what’s causing this to begin with. And there’s a lot of issues that I think are at the epicenter of that profound catastrophic loss.

“The miracle of our model is empowering communities into a lifestyle of service with and alongside our homeless brothers and sisters.” Alan Graham

 

Deciding to Care from the Outside

 

Jessica: I just imagine you leaving the beautiful hills of West Lake driving over to East Austin in your green minivan with these three friends of yours. I can imagine that you weren’t necessarily envisioning the picture that you just painted for us. So, tell me a little bit the story behind the story because how does a guy decide to care?

Alan: Well, you know, my wife Trisha and I started having babies in the late 1980s. Babies come on board, she starts thinking that we need to take them to church and raise our family in a church environment. I wasn’t too keen on that, but I finally jumped on that train. And when I jumped on that train, I said to myself, if I’m gonna jump on this train, I’m gonna study my faith. I’m Roman Catholic. So, I went and started devouring the historical stuff about my Roman Catholic faith and Christianity in general and just became enamored with the train wreck that that deal has been for 2000 years, the battles and the warfare, the reformations and the heresies and all the stuff that’s just piled into that. And it’s like an awesome, exciting novel of intrigue, yet the church still exists.

So, I had this real intellectual relationship with Christ. And in 1996, I got invited to go on a men’s retreat where had I known that men were gonna hold hands with each other, exactly, I wouldn’t have gone, but it turned into that and it was the most powerful 30 hours of my life. And at that point in time, at the end of this, I adopted a philosophy that I called just say yes—”God, what do you want me to do?” And in the beginning, it was the stuff that you would do at church become a lector, a eucharistic minister. Trisha would volunteer in the nursery and on and on and on and on. And then one day, I got invited to go out and provide some sack lunches to men and women that would get a job at the day-labor site but didn’t have a lunch to take with them.

And then, about a year after that, my wife Trisha and I were having coffee with a girlfriend, and she was telling us about a ministry in Corpus Christi—this would be in 1998—that on cold winter nights would pool their resources to take out to the men and women that were on the streets. And at that moment, the image of a catering truck entered my brain as a distribution mechanism from those of us that have abundance, to those that lack. You know, I had no dream, no vision to be where I am today. It was just God kind of nourishing me along that journey.

Jessica: So, your heart starts to shift, your heart starts to transform. You begin seeing the world differently. You begin to see yourself as part of the solution for the needs in the world. When did this become a fulltime gig for you? Like, did you have a career before this?

Alan: Yes, I was a real estate developer, developing air cargo facilities on airports, and we were doing well. And, I was just having so, so much fun doing this, and I became obsessed. I’m a serial entrepreneur by DNA, and I just couldn’t get this food truck operation out of my mind. I couldn’t get the men and women that we were serving out of my mind. I was becoming friends. My stereotypes were dropping like flies, and it just became awesome. But by 2003, we had made the decision to back entirely out of the real estate business and spend full time trying to build this ministry.

 

Join the Noonday Sisterhood!

 

Jessica: Hey, let me interrupt this conversation for just a hot second, because there’s something that I’ve been wanting to tell you guys about. As many of you know, I’m not just a podcast host. I’ve got a little side hustle where I’m the CEO of a socially conscious accessories brand called Noonday Collection. And, at Noonday, we make an impact for over 4,500 Artisans around the globe. And we do this through a marketplace here in America, through a group of women that we call Noonday Collection Ambassadors. These are social entrepreneurs who are earning an income while making and impact, and right now I am on the search for more women to join our community.

If you are passionate, and you want to change the world, and you don’t feel like you have an outlet, if you have an extra financial need in your life, and you’re looking for how to earn an income, if you’re just wanting to grow as a leader, then this opportunity is for you. And I’ve got something special for you that is happening right now, that is running out really soon—when you become an Ambassador by March 31, 2019, you’ll have the opportunity to earn an incredible bag worth over $200 for free.

Y’all, we have hardly ever run promotions like this, and now really is the time to join. So, if you want more details, just head over to noondaycollection.com\goingscared. Thanks a lot. Back to the conversation.

 

Beautifully Wider Circles

 

Jessica: Tell me about that first person that you developed a relationship with, that still to this day is a friend of yours and you just look at the transformation that happened in your own life because of the intersection you’ve had with that person that formerly you saw as just a homeless person and now as a friend.

Alan: Well, I think you’re probably talking about Euston Flake. Euston had been, was actually born in 1955. The same year I was born. He was born into poverty. I was not. Euston spent most of his life, homeless, drug addict, alcoholic, incarcerated a number of times, ends up coming on staff at our church, St. John Newman Catholic church on the custodial staff about the time that we’re dreaming up this Mobile Loaves & Fishes thing. And one of my buddies, one of the other four guys, said, ”You know, we really don’t know what we’re doing here. Euston was homeless. Why don’t we go talk to him?” And so, we brought him up to one of our business planning meetings in a downtown high rise overlooking Congress Avenue and the capitol, and we had deli lunches being catered in.

We were accustomed to this. He was not. When this was all over, he said, ”Come on Alan, I want to take you to my conference room.” At that point, we drive into the south Austin, park the truck, walk up a dirt path in the middle of it, sitting there, an Indian woman drinking a beer, smoking cigarettes about one o’clock in the afternoon. And the closer I get, the more homeless that person looks. And I realized then that I was out of my comfort zone. This is totally out of my wheelhouse. I was fearful that I was gonna be introduced and have to shake hands. No telling what was on that hand. All this stuff is going through my brain. And as we approach, the woman gets up out of her chair, Euston reaches around, embraces her in a giant bear hug. And as he’s releasing from that hug, just plants a little filial kiss right on her lips. And at that point in time, I realized that this guy, this former heroine junkie, alcoholic, incarcerated and convicted felon, homeless guy was holding my hand and taking me through a giant wall of prejudice and stereotypes. And I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. It was powerful and transforming.

Jessica: Those moments are so powerful. And yet you use that to actually take a longterm view, to actually do something and to be the solution to the problem that you see. What do you think has helped give you that longterm sustainable mindset, the persevering mindset to keep at this work?

Alan: Well, if anybody knows anything about me it’s that I’m laser-focused. And I have been most of my life, if I get on point on something, I’m only gonna get off point at the point in time that the thing collapses and it’s obvious it’s dead. And so, I just got on point on this thing, I was having so much fun and it kept growing and growing, and God kept giving me new ideas and new connections and it and really to this day and every day I’m inspired to wake up in the morning and come out here and do what I do because I just think we’re making a giant difference in the world.

 

Solving Homelessness from the Inside Out

 

Jessica: Now that you have been exposed to all the different ways that people, with their good-hearted attempts, try to serve the homeless and help the homeless, where do you feel like homeless outreach has really gotten it wrong?

Alan: You know, a couple of ways. First of all, there are two, at the moment that you and I are conceived, two in eight qualities about you and I. Number one, you and I desire to be fully and wholly loved, and you and I desire to be fully and wholly known. These are critical to our DNA. If we really want to understand homelessness, it’s important for us to understand what home is. And we believe that within the phenomenology of home that there are eight characteristics.

First, home is a place of permanence. Second, home is a dwelling place. Third, home is a place of embodied inhabitation. You come to my home or my office and all the stuff in here embodies who I am. Fourth, home is a place of hospitality. You’re always gonna be treated hospitably when you come to my house. Fifth, home is a place of safety and refuge. Six, home is a place of stories and memories. It’s often said that the mortar that holds the bricks of even the most impoverished home together are the stories and memories that flow from that home. Seventh, home is a place of orientation. No matter where I’ve been in the world. And I’ve been in some pretty cool places, my compass is always oriented to my home in Austin, Texas. And last and not least, and very important, home is a place of affiliation and belonging. And it turns out that you and I actually like to be around people like us.

And so, when you’ve battled mental health issues, homelessness, drug addictions, incarceration, you affiliate and belong with other people that have those shared experiences. But notice within those eight characteristics, it has nothing to do with four walls and a roof. And so, the “System” answer to solving homelessness is to stuff people into housing. And we have a phrase within Mobile Loaves & Fishes that housing will never solve homelessness. But community will, because people desire to be fully and wholly loved and fully and wholly known. That’s the difference.

“Housing will never solve homelessness. But community will, because people desire to be fully and wholly loved and fully and wholly known. That’s the difference.” Alan Graham

Jessica: And so, what you’re saying is many times in our goodhearted attempts to ”solve homelessness.” We see it as a home, a physical home issue, but it’s really a community issue.

Alan: Yeah. Well, most of us are living today in these hermetically sealed single-family sarcophaguses that we call the American dream with eight-foot-tall privacy fences and sport courts, barbecue pits, and swimming pools in our backyard … you know, the American dream. But what we’ve done is we’ve isolated ourselves from each other, and we’re not interacting, we’re not intersecting. And our subdivisions have actually become extraordinarily stale, life-stealing … sucking-the-life-out-of-people places to be. And you come into the Community First! Village, and there’s no back doors. There’s no backyard, there’s no fences. Every home has a front porch. Every home is small, and it’s always an invitation. We call this place the first phase, a 250-bedroom, $18 million mansion. So, it’s a different perspective on that.

 

Finding Ways to Reach Out and Let In

 

Jessica: So, what are some of those ways that we can return to being a caring and compassionate culture? Like, are there practical ways that people across America, that we can do this? Because I think we’re all tired of it. We are tired of the rhetoric, we’re tired of the hate. I mean there are the simple things of just refusing to listen to kind of the polarizing talk. I mean there’s ways that we can become friends with people that might not look like us or might have different political opinions. What are some of the ways that you have cultivated and shifted the culture even in your family to be different?

Alan: Well, I think, the first thing is to start coming out of our homes and engaging with people that live literally next door to us, across the street, down the street, somehow figure that out. I would stop building houses with backyards and build houses with giant front porches. So, people are forced onto the outside. Smaller houses, you know, the average size of a single-family dwelling in the 1950s was 958 square feet and now it’s 2,500 square feet. And then I think it’s moving into the city and starting to interact with people that look different, like people that are standing on their street corners or people of color, people of different religious faiths. And just hanging out with people and realizing that “hey, they may not be as much different as we think.” Yeah, maybe ideologically there’s “we believe in this thing and they believe in that thing.” But at the end of the day, the differences are relatively shallow.

Jessica: And when it comes to interacting with those people that are homeless in our midst, do you think a lot of people just feel uncomfortable? They freeze, they’re like, I don’t have any cash on me, so I’m not even gonna look at the guy in the eyes. Like, what is your … would you be our teacher in helping us? How can we interact with those in our midst that are homeless?

Alan: Well, I think first is acknowledge that they’re standing on our street corners. It’s easy to roll your window down. You know, blow out a hello or a god bless. I don’t know that there’s ever been a recorded incident where somebody jumped off the street corner into somebody’s car and sliced their throat. You know, it’s just, it’s people in broad daylight. When you get comfortable doing that, and you can actually pull up over the curb and get out of the vehicle and go introduce yourself and maybe bring a Chick-fil-A gift card or something like that, that might be beneficial for somebody to go get a healthy little meal or even a not healthy meal, just a meal in general. And begin to build relationships because that’s where it all begins. In Austin, if you build a relationship with somebody on the street corner someday, maybe invite them for a hamburger and bring them out to the Village and show them this awesome place. You never know what might be able to happen from that.

“Acknowledge that they’re standing on our street corners. It’s easy to roll your window down. You know, blow out a hello or a god bless. … You never know what might be able to happen from that.” Alan Graham

Jessica: Tell me about your kids and how has them growing up around this heart of both you and your wife’s, how has that impacted their lives?

Alan: Well, we have four biological kids and one niece that we raised, so five were in the house at the same time three girls, two boys. My oldest was about 10 years old, roughly when we founded Mobile Loaves 10, 11, and the youngest was 4 or 5 years old. So, they’ve been sucked into this environment for basically their entire lives. Raising kids in Westlake hills on a ministry salary was—in a ministry lifestyle was tough. For some of them, or what they at the time viewed as being a tough. One of my daughters, I would intentionally go pick up from high school in a Mobile Loaves & Fishes Truck, that embarrassed the pee-wad out of her. So that was fun. But two of my kids work full time here. My daughter Taylor, who is 30, is our director of stewardship and my son, who is 25 runs our culinary operation here, and they love it and all of them are still committed to what we do believe in what we do, and they’re proud of their mom and dad for doing this, so…

Jessica: Wow. That is awesome. What a testament to your parenting and you bringing them along on your vision, that it wasn’t just about you and your wife, but it was a family, a family calling.

Alan: Yeah. Yeah, no doubt.

 

Going Scared with Earned Wisdom

 

Jessica: So, this is called the Going Scared podcast. And we always like to ask our guests, how are you going scared, which we define courage as being afraid and just moving forward anyway. So where are those places where you are practicing courage in your life right now?

Alan: Well, this has been an extraordinary, blessed journey. And the older that you get, and I’m 63, so when I look back at the Grand Canyon chasms that I was being asked across, when I was looking at those from a forward-facing perspective, it was frightening. It was not only frightening for myself, but it was even most frightening for my wife who is not the entrepreneurial—been out of that entrepreneurial cloth. When each of us look back, we see the same thing. We see a little crack in the concrete that all we needed to do was just step over. And so, the older you get, the more you realize that the challenges that you think are facing us are probably made up more in our heads than what the reality will actually be. And so, I kind of stand here as a testament of someone who has encountered a lot of interesting changes over my life. And as I look back, it’s like no big deal. Does that make sense?

“The older you get, the more you realize that the challenges that you think are facing us are probably made up more in our heads than what the reality will actually be.” Alan Graham

Jessica: It does make sense, that in retrospect—they felt like chasms, but in retrospect, you realize they were just the next step forward to the next thing.

Alan: That’s right. Yeah. And, it’s not like we’re in Afghanistan walking into gunfire. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other foot and going for it.

Jessica: So, are you answering the question by saying you just don’t, you’re saying at 63 … Did you say 63?

Alan: Yeah. Yeah. 63.

Jessica: You just don’t, you aren’t afraid anymore or that’s just not your … that’s not even how you would phrase it.

Alan: Well, it’s—I’ve never been afraid. I mean, I mean, it’s not that I’ve never been, like, nervous or anxious, but I am one who’s personality has always embraced a challenge and actually loved the challenge. And so, we were even talking today after a big meeting that we had. I’ve been through four economic downturns in my lifetime, and there’s another one coming. I don’t know when, I can’t predict that. But it would be idiocy to think that we’re not gonna end up in that place. And am I afraid of that? And the answer’s no. I’m actually prepared mentally for that reality. And I think the important thing is in order to overcome fear and the anxiety is to be prepared that the fear and the anxiety are going to come. And then what are the tools that we can use to mitigate that fear and that anxiety? I sleep a solid eight hours virtually every night of the week.

Jessica: I love when Alan said that he’s never heard reports of anyone rolling down their window and getting slashed across the neck for saying hi to the person on their street corner. That was honestly convicting for me because I—maybe like many of you—if I don’t have raisins or something to hand out, I do want to look away almost in guilt and shame. It was just another reminder to stop, look someone in the eyes, smile at them, greet them, ask them how their day is going. That really is all any of us want is to be known and to be loved. And we all have the power to give that away.

Today’s wonderful music for the show is by my good friend, Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time. Let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.