When Kristin Paulson and her family moved from their West Lake neighborhood to Community First, she found more than just a new home.
By Courtney Runn, Family photos by Courtney Runn, Community First photos courtesy of Community First
When Kristin Paulson moved to her new neighborhood last year, not all of her neighbors were happy to see her. One neighbor in particular challenged Paulson’s presence, her confusion and frustration and their many tense conversations encapsulated in one question: “Why don’t you go back home to your Westlake house and your privilege?”
The question was a tender one for Paulson, who was already wrestling with her place in the community.
“Do I belong with the rich privilege?” she remembers asking herself. “Or do I belong in East Austin, with my formerly homeless neighbors?”
Paulson and her family live at Community First Village, a master-planned community on the edge of East Austin designed to be a permanent home for Austin’s transitioning homeless population. They left their West Lake Hills, Texas, home in August 2017 to live full time with the formerly homeless.
Paulson thought the biggest challenges facing her would be living in a tiny home without all of her things or watching her kids move outside their comfort zone, but neither proved to be a problem. Instead, she found herself staring down her own identity and purpose in the world. Could her own privilege, pain and past be redeemed and was she enough for her new neighbors? A year at Community First proved to provide a new home, but also a place of healing.
The Most Talked About Neighborhood in Austin
In 1998, Alan Graham started driving throughout Austin, offering meals to the homeless. His desire to serve the city quickly grew into what is now Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a mobile food-truck ministry that provides hot meals to the city’s most needy. Graham could be considered an expert on homelessness and is the published author of Welcome Homeless: One Man’s Journey of Discovering the Meaning of Home. In 2015, Graham received the prestigious Austinite of the Year award.
Despite his accolades, when he presented his idea for a planned community for the homeless, the city fought back. Many Austinites were hesitant to live next to a community of formerly homeless people (a common national response when unwelcome development is proposed, known as Not in My Backyard) and the government presented obstacles as well.
Graham helped rescue one person from the streets in 2004, and, in 2015, the first residents moved into the village. Community First is now officially a branch of Graham’s MLF nonprofit. Despite Community First’s rocky beginning, the city now embraces the village and it’s truly a community affair. Alamo Drafthouse donated a large movie screen that shows weekly Friday night movies that are open to the city, Charles Maund Toyota partnered with the community to install an auto shop where residents can work, and Paul Mitchell donated hair products to the village’s Community Hair Studio, which is also sponsored by Academy of Hair Design. The village also boasts one of the country’s largest tiny-house bed-and-breakfast sites, where visitors can rent tiny homes, tipis or travel trailers just like they would any other vacation rental in the city.
Today, more than 160 formerly homeless Austinites call the 27-acre Community First property home, and communities throughout the country are attempting to replicate the model, as it’s the first of its kind. According to its website, the community currently offers 120 micro-homes, 100 RVs and 20 canvas-sided cottages.
To live in the community, residents must be chronically homeless (or serve as a ‘missional resident’ like Paulson) and follow three rules: They have to pay rent (Rent varies from $220 to $440 per month based on housing models.), follow civil law and follow the rules of the community. While some residents are disabled and unable to work, many have jobs in the village.
Give or take a few hundred, Community First estimates Austin has 2,000 homeless residents, and once the property reaches capacity, it will house 200, making a 10 percent impact on housing Austin’s homeless population. Once phase two of the village starts, 24 acres and 350 homes will be added, making an even larger impact.
Thomas Aitchison, communications director, says it has “become one of the most talked-about neighborhoods in Austin, Texas.”
Needless to say, Community First is providing a viable solution to homelessness and now offers symposiums so anyone interested in starting a version can come learn what has made this model so successful.
Unlike transactional models, like food pantries or homeless shelters that treat an immediate need briefly, Community First operates as a relational model. Aitchisonsays while transactional models help solve the larger puzzle of treating homelessness, Community First believes a relational model addresses deeper wounds.
“It’s our core belief that the single largest cause of homelessness is when an individual experiences a profound catastrophic loss of family,” Aitchison says.
To fill this relational void, the model dictates that 20 percent of residents are “missional residents,” people who, like the Paulsons, do not come from a background of homelessness but are willing to live in the community alongside the formerly homeless to act, as Aitchison describes them, as “shepherds” to the community. The residents don’t need administrators; they need friends to walk alongside them as they navigate living in a community for the first time in years, or even decades.
Aitchison says many residents have difficulty adjusting to their new life. When a new resident moves in, the community hosts welcome-home parties, officially welcoming them into the community. An integral value of the village is dignity. Homelessness strips dignity, so it was important to Graham and his team to intentionally design the community to restore dignity to its residents.
Residents get to pick their housing, and all the furnishing inside is brand new, a contrast to the used donations the homeless are often used to receiving. Communal bathrooms and showers separated by gender are located throughout the property, offering residents privacy and immediate access. One of the most poignant spaces in the community is the remembrance garden, where neighbors who die are buried. When a homeless person dies on the streets, it is often without notice or ceremony, leaving their friends no information of their whereabouts or a way to mourn and remember them. The remembrance garden not only provides a space for grieving, but also gives residents solace, knowing they will be remembered and missed.
Westlake to East Austin
Before living at Community First, Paulson barely spoke to homeless people like those she’s now living alongside. She drove by one woman on a West Lake street corner for 12 years.
“I never asked her her name,” Paulson says. “I’ve waved to her. I’ve given her change. I didn’t know how to talk to her. My attitude was she’s on drugs or there’s a mental illness there or there’s something wrong with her and I’m not equipped to handle that, so I don’t even know where to start.”
Today, the two are neighbors and Paulson now knows her name is Emily.
“I had to go to her and say, ‘Will you forgive me for those 12 years I drove by you and never asked your name?’ ” Paulson says.
Emily, who Paulson describes as a beautiful person, lives at Community First, works several jobs and recently got married. Outside and inside the village, her reputation precedes her and she’s always stopped to say hi. Now Paulson considers her a good friend.
Paulson first heard about the village at her church, Austin Ridge Bible Church. She kept meeting people involved with the community and when she met a top-level executive who lived there with his wife, she was intrigued. What inspired these people to leave everything behind and go live in this community? At the same time, she was also questioning her own purpose. Living comfortably in West Lake wasn’t fulfilling her.
“I went to the gym a lot and played squash and I thought that was going to make me happy,” she says. “It wasn’t until I found out why my life was my life and what I was supposed to do with that that I started to say, ‘OK, God, what do you want me to do with this? How am I supposed to use my story to help people?’ ”
After continually hearing about Community First, Paulson and her husband, an associate dean and executive director at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, decided to jump in, not fully knowing what they were committing to. They first heard about the village in the fall of 2016, and less than a year later, moved in, in August 2017.
While their college-aged daughter was skeptical, their two teenage sons weren’t fazed by their parents’ decision. With supportive friends and family behind them, they packed up their West Lake home, rented it out on Airbnb and moved into an 8-foot-by-32-foot tiny home.
The night before moving into their new home, two missional residents from Community First took them on a “street retreat,” a chance for them to experience the reality their new neighbors once lived.
Armed only with a sleeping bag and water bottles, the four of them spent the night on the streets, looking for food and shelter. Paulson and her son slept on the basketball court of a church basement, while her husband and other son slept under a bridge. When they arrived, exhausted and sweaty, at Community First the following day, they found out their tiny home wasn’t ready, and their temporary trailer was completely empty. After a night on the streets, they only felt gratitude at the sight of an air-conditioned space. Thus began their journey at Community First.
A Place of Healing
While moving to Community First began to add more meaning to Paulson’s life, she didn’t feel her purpose was complete yet. Like the woman who questioned why Paulson didn’t return to her privilege in West Lake, Paulson herself began to doubt her place in the village. She didn’t feel equipped to love the people around her; she didn’t share their past, she didn’t feel patient or loving enough.
“In my desperation, I thought, ‘God, maybe I’m not cut out for this,’ ” she says.
It wasn’t until she began to examine her own past that healing and purpose flooded her life. Before living at Community First, Paulson began volunteering with The Refuge, a rehabilitation center for survivors of sex trafficking. She helped design the cottages where the girls live and joined the speaking team because she had one thing in common with these girls she served: Paulson was raped at 16.
She carried that story with her for decades, the details tucked away in shame. The more she shared her story, the looser the grip her past had on her heart. She started to accept her past as a way to change the future for others.
While Paulson grew up going to church, she says it wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she truly began to examine and claim her faith. Several years ago, she decided to get baptized, a public sign of what she believes.
“That public confirmation that I believe that Jesus is my lord and savior just helped bring that confidence in who I was and how my story was OK and that I actually like my story,” Paulson says.
Because of her story, Paulson always felt drawn to fighting against sex trafficking and continued to volunteer after moving to Community First. While working on an art project for The Refuge, she discovered she had more in common with her homeless neighbors than she realized.
Paulson partnered with Community First this year to paint ceramic doves that now hang in the cottages at The Refuge. While working on them at the village, neighbors would ask her what the doves were for. When she told them they were for The Refuge and explained the concept of sex trafficking, the women often responded with, “Oh, I was sex trafficked.”
Many of the women living in the village, Paulson says, have also experienced sexual abuse and were forced to sell their bodies to survive on the streets. Until she defined abuse, many of them had never been able to explain what had happened to them.
Once again, Paulson’s past forged a new path for others. Sharing her story with her new neighbors gave her the confidence to love them, to cast aside her doubts of worthiness or purpose.
“If I hadn’t healed from my past, it just would’ve reintroduced trauma into my own life,” Paulson says. “It pushed me into having to deal with my past.”
On a hot day early this fall, Paulson and her family prepared to go to the village’s weekly Thursday night community dinner. Her husband had just come home from work and her two boys were chattering about homework. They told their dog to be good and left their tiny home.
They joined other neighbors slowly making their way to Unity Hall, a large structure in the center of the village. Paulson joined the already long line queuing up for their weekly free dinner provided by a volunteer group from Steiner Ranch. As she made her way to the end of the line, she stopped to greet each person, asking questions about their pets or a recent illness.
After piling her plate with Indian food, she joined a table with Emily and a few of her other friends. Emily showed her a picture on her phone, laughing at the meme a fellow neighbor had made of her.
Conversation flowed easily and the room resembled a large family gathering. After the dinner, Paulson made her way back home, her younger son stopping every few feet to floss dance and show her his other Fornite-inspired dance moves.
They stopped to talk with a couple that lives across from them. Paulson joked with them that people would see a Westlake woman with big hair and automatically make assumptions about her lifestyle. They’d be shocked to know quite a few of them are living at Community First, she laughs.
Her son rushed inside and her husband lingered, drawn into a conversation with a neighbor. The sun was setting and it felt like the end of a September day in any neighborhood in Austin.
Paulson says they had originally only planned to stay for one year in Community First, as a family challenge.
“Now we don’t put a timeline on it,” she says. “We don’t feel called away. In fact, we feel more called.”
Similar to their Thursday night dinner, on Tuesday nights, the community gathers for a night of stone soup. Taken from the folk tale of the same name, the dinner involves attendees bringing one type of food and mixing it together to create a meal for everyone. The idea of a community making food together almost seems as quaint and sweet as the folk tale that inspired it. It’s this very sense of togetherness, though, that sets Community First apart.
Paulson felt like she came to the village with empty hands, but she was contributing to the stone soup all along. Instead of questioning herself, she now asks others questions and lives life alongside them, not as a guest, but as a neighbor. She has finally come home.