In a Nutshell: The city of Austin in Texas has earned a reputation as a community of givers in no small part through the efforts of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit that started truck deliveries of food and clothing to homeless people 25 years ago. Since those early days it has expanded beyond its Truck Ministry to create the Community First! Village, which provides affordable, permanent housing and support to hundreds of chronically homeless people in Central Texas. Mobile Loaves & Fishes needs cardholder support as it expands the Community First! Village approach in Austin and models effective homelessness services for other cities.
If you live in Austin, Texas, or have visited on business or just to hang out, you may have encountered a food truck operated by Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF), one of Austin’s most enduring community nonprofits.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes has a 25-year history of serving homeless individuals in Austin through its Truck Ministry. MLF volunteers take trucks out on the streets every night, all year, to provide food, clothing, hygiene products, and other life-sustaining items to Austin’s homeless population.
Over the years, tens of thousands of MLF Truck Ministry volunteers have served more than 6.4 million meals. Through conversation and relationship-building, they’ve also provided a measure of dignity and respect to struggling people as a first step toward emotional, spiritual, and physical healing.
MLF Founder and CEO Alan Graham contends that food and clothing are conduits to delivering that greater need for community and connection. The catastrophic loss of family, he believes, is at the root of homelessness and what MLF seeks most to remedy.
As impressive as that sounds, it’s only the beginning of what MLF seeks to accomplish in Austin and beyond. Through the Community First! Village, a 51-acre master-planned community, MLF provides affordable, permanent housing and essential support to nearly 400 formerly homeless individuals.
MLF calls Village residents neighbors. It plans additional expansion phases to increase Village capacity to more than 1,900. It also provides guidance to other cities through its Symposium for Goodness’ Sake, three-day workshops open to individuals and organizations interested in learning the essentials of the Village approach.
As a nonprofit, Mobile Loaves & Fishes depends on donations as it seeks to triple or even quadruple in size and extend its influence.
“We’re calling on people to continue to rally behind us and be with us,” Senior Relationship Officer Sarah LeNoir said. “Our Everyday Angels monthly giving opportunity is a great way for cardholders and others to provide ongoing support to the Village and bring hope to our homeless friends surviving on the streets.”
Truck Ministry Provides Healing By Meeting Basic Needs
Alan Graham, MLF’s Founder, was a real estate investor and developer who founded Trilogy Development and the Lynxs Group, which developed Austin’s airport cargo facility. He characterizes himself as a serial entrepreneur.
But mostly he’s a family man who took the Christian gospel stories to heart and sought to instill those values in his community. In 1998, he and a few others — deacons and friends at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Austin — started delivering meals to homeless people from a minivan.
With the help of Houston Flake, a formerly homeless individual who worked as a janitor at St. John Neumann, Graham and his colleagues soon perfected the Truck Ministry model MLF uses to this day. Ten or so trucks are out on the streets on any given night.
“They’re one of the key reasons we’ve been successful across 25 years of going out in the community,” LeNoir said. “People living in the streets and the community recognize our brand and know what we’re doing. We’re very blessed to live and work in a city that has come to celebrate us.”
Graham’s Truck Ministry model strives to offer homeless people dignity of choice in every way possible. For example, the trucks always distribute at least two kinds of sandwiches, two kinds of sides, and two kinds of beverages. There’s often clothing and always clean white socks available as well.
Another important detail about the model is that volunteers aren’t behind a counter serving people across a barrier. Everyone’s on the same side, pulling and pointing and developing relationships, connecting human to human and heart to heart.
“That relationship building is where we came to believe that the root cause of homelessness is the catastrophic and profound loss of family,” LeNoir said.
Community First! Village Manifests Love and Service
The logical next step was to offer Austin’s homeless individuals a destination. Graham’s developer origins came to the fore as Mobile Loaves & Fishes acquired property and gently used recreational vehicles to form Community First! Village, which started as a 27-acre tract and soon added another 24 acres.
“We moved in our first neighbors in 2016 after about two years of preparation — the site was in pretty rough shape when we first got it,” LeNoir said. “We currently have a retention rate of 86% while most permanent housing solutions are closer to 40%. So we’re really performing well in this area.”
That unusually high retention rate owes much to the community amenities associated with the Village. The Genesis Gardens farm operation and the Art House, where neighbors produce and sell creative art, fall under MLF’s Community Works umbrella, designed to inspire homeless individuals to rediscover purpose and apply their God-given talents to earn a dignified income.
In 2022, Village neighbors earned more than $1.5 million through Community Works and other micro-enterprise opportunities. There’s also a Community Market where the public can purchase art, handcrafted gifts, and “Goodness Gear” — MLF-branded shirts, hats, bags, mugs, and other swag.
Other amenities and services arose through local partnerships. The Village houses an office of the Communities for Recovery addiction recovery service, offers restorative justice and conflict resolution services through Life Anew, and provides case management services through Family Eldercare.
The opportunity to earn a dignified income is important because there are no free rides at the Community First! Village. Rent is low, around $300 to $550 a month. Prospective neighbors undergo a coordinated assessment through the county Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, and there’s typically about a six-month waiting period before move-in.
“We have three rules to live in the Village: Everybody pays rent, everybody follows the law, and everybody obeys the neighborhood guidelines like a homeowner’s association might have,” LeNoir said.
A Model Worthy of Donations and Emulation
MLF considers Community First! Village permanent housing with supportive services. The average age of Village neighbors is about 57, and neighbors spend an average of 8.9 years on the streets before joining the Village.
Although neighbors may transition to other living options if they reconnect with family or receive public housing, the intent behind the Village is to be there for the long haul.
“As you might imagine, homelessness takes a lot of time off one’s life — the average life expectancy is about 60 with this population,” LeNoir said. “So we’re the last stop on a lot of different journeys.”
Mobile Loaves & Fishes is majority funded by private donations and support from foundations and other partners. In 2023, it began infrastructure work for a combined 127-acre expansion of the Village to accommodate more than 1,400 additional neighbors.
MLF’s capital campaign for accomplishing that lofty goal is ongoing. Just as volunteers from the Austin area have made the Truck Ministry and the Community First! Village work all these years, LeNoir stresses community support, particularly through the Everyday Angels monthly giving opportunity, as the key to the viability of the expansion project.
“We’re relying on the community right now,” she said.
Cardholders and others interested in facing the challenge of homelessness have another reason to support MLF: It offers an extensible model, meaning other cities can apply it. Each three-day Symposium for Goodness’ Sake provides participants with guidance they can use to bring hope to homeless individuals back home. Sign up for the MLF email list on the Symposium page to learn about upcoming events and to support replicating the Community First! model.
About 300 Austin-area volunteers donate their time at the Village in any given week. After they complete their service, they receive a neighbor-led tour of the Village. For LeNoir, working at Genesis Gardens is where it’s at.
“There’s nothing like ripping carrots out of the earth or giving the arugula a little haircut,” she said.
But what cardholders called to support MLF’s work should appreciate most is how newly settled Village neighbors, who may have experienced years of chronic stress and deprivation, eventually acclimate and come out of their shells.
“There’s something special about seeing that happen over and over and knowing that the work we’re doing is not just putting a roof over somebody’s head but letting them be a whole person again,” LeNoir said.