Alan Graham is the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a social outreach ministry that provides food and clothing, cultivates community, and promotes dignity to homeless men and women in need. His change in perspective on homelessness has led him to be the community leader he is today.
Optimism isn’t just a state of mind, it’s a practice. But seizing an opportunity to improve things can rarely be done alone. Texans work together every day to help their neighbors, respond to disaster, and build brighter futures. In a photo essay series we’re calling Faces of Optimism, we’re spotlighting community-building Texans who are making a difference. First up, Alan Graham. He gives us a tour of one of his recent projects, and explains how a change in perspective was the catalyst for Community First! Village in East Austin.
Meet Alan Graham, the founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF) and the Community First! Village. He is the type of person that could only be described as a pillar of the optimist community. “I’m an extraordinarily optimistic human being! Very, very optimistic,” Graham says, “I think it’s important to be optimistic. No matter who you are and what you do.”
“It was really a spiritual motivation,” Graham recalled, “I started asking God, ‘Where do you want me to go?’ And in 1998, he gave me the idea of these catering trucks [to feed people in need].”
From that moment, Graham has made it his life’s work to tackle one of the most daunting modern issues: homelessness. With over 25,000 Texans experiencing homelessness on a given night, it is a complex issue that would be impossible to navigate without a boatload of optimistic thoughts and ideas.
But Graham wasn’t always optimistic about homelessness. He was, like many, often uncomfortable when confronted with the homeless community. He recounts a time in 1981 where he was on a date with Tricia, his future wife, where a homeless man approached her to ask for money and Graham reacted by yelling at the man to get a job. This memory has stuck with him through all the years, even as his philosophy on homelessness has radically changed.
“I was a typical person that thought that the homeless should go get a job, that they were lazy, drug addicts that chose that lifestyle,” Alan said. Then in 1998, after a religious retreat, Alan had the idea to do “this catering truck thing,” which would go on to become the largest prepared feeding program to the homeless in Central Texas.
“Look, it wasn’t meant to be anything more than, you know, a bunch of guys going out and feeding the people on the street out of the catering truck. But then it turned into this thing,” Graham explained.
For the next 17 years, Alan and his constantly growing network of catering truck teams and volunteers worked within the homeless community and the “catering truck thing” became the largest prepared feeding program to the homeless in Central Texas. Throughout these years of work, Alan began to better understand that the struggle for the homeless goes far beyond needing food and thus, the idea for the Community First! Village began to take shape with an underlying philosophy that people need a reliable roof over their heads to be able to move forward in their lives.
Now, Graham focuses on the MLF project known as Community First! Village, a 51-acre development aimed at providing affordable, permanent housing to the once-homeless. Phase II is the newest development of the Community First! Village. “It will be about 30-40 percent larger and add 310 homes,” he explained. Phase II aims to expand the housing capabilities of the community with 200 micro-homes and 110 RV/Park homes.
The Phase II section of the village is coming together with the help of some serious technology. Some of the micro-homes are being brought to life with the help of ICON, a company that uses 3D printing to build homes making them more affordable, less wasteful, and much faster!
“In order to be innovative you’ve got to embrace innovation,” said Graham.
The Village includes a community cinema, art house, auto shop, organic farm, market—even a forge! All of which are operated by the residents of the village. The cinema screenings are open to the public and people are encouraged to attend.
“I think optimism produces, you know, dopamine and serotonin. You know, all the stuff that’s part of your brain chemistry,” said Graham.
“You’ve got to connect people, you know, human to human, heart to heart. Start hanging out with them and finding out, wow, they’re actually very awesome people,” Graham said, standing in front of a row of Airbnbs that are regularly filled with people looking to attend community events and to just stay in the neighborhood for vacation.
Photos and words by Marshall Tidrick.