Solving Homelessness at Community First

by Baylor Line Foundation | March 2, 2018

He sat in the prison cell wondering what might become of his life.

Hours earlier, he was in a drunk driving accident that took someone’s life. He knew that his dreams of being a network sportscaster were over. When the news came out, he would lose his job and reputation. His star had been rising quickly for some time. One gig led to another until he was the television sports guy for Florida State. If you would have asked him, his next stop was ESPN, not the county jail.

That was decades ago, but now Matt Freeman (’86) is on an entirely different path. He often shares that testimony – the one where he lost everything in the blink of an eye – to prisoners and homeless people. On the night of the accident, he prayed and felt the first whispers of a new calling on his life.

“That’s when the gospel became very, very, very attractive,” Matt says. “That’s when Jesus became more than just a historical figure. He became my liberator.”

In the years to follow, Matt served the local church in various capacities. He found himself being drawn deeper into local missions when an opportunity came along for him to help lead a revolutionary homeless community on the far east side of Austin. The project started as an offshoot of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a truck ministry that feeds and clothes the homeless throughout several cities. But they dreamed of something bigger.

“Suddenly the cause of homelessness became much more than just some man or woman on the street flying a sign asking for a handout. It became human to human. Heart to heart. I began meeting people who were on the streets and realizing that the greatest desire we have is for love. Specifically the love of Christ in very real, tangible, sometimes uncomfortable ways.”

They laid out the earliest plans for Community First Village, a 27-acre master planned community that would house and employ the formerly homeless. They raised $17 million of private funding through individuals and churches and broke ground in 2014. The property is incredibly unique, with tiny houses built by local architects, RVs, a library, gardens, markets, and an outdoor movie theater donated by Alamo Drafthouse. They host popular movie nights and events that are open to the public. Doctors and mental health professionals are on site. The city even added a bus stop so residents can move freely into town and go to work. Nearly 200 people live there, but not all of them come from the streets. Some Austinites have sold their houses and taken up residence in RVs so they can play a role in this community. They are known as “missional neighbors.”

On any given day, you’ll encounter the formerly homeless, local volunteers, and wealthy donors, not knowing which is which. Everyone has their own story and their own reasons. Stereotypes about homelessness quickly disappear at Community First. While drugs and alcohol are certainly contributing factors to life on the streets, the single greatest cause of homelessness is the catastrophic loss of family. Community is in the title for that very reason. As Matt has learned, the only way to truly combat homelessness is to provide a place where community can thrive.

“We realized that what our brothers and sisters on the street, and really all of us desire, is community. It’s not housing. The two greatest needs we all possess is to be loved and to be known.”

Because Community First has been so successful, planners from around the country have been visiting to see if the model can be replicated in their own cities. Even now, Community First is planning an expansion to lift 600 people off the streets.

“It’s a beautiful mess,” Matt says with a laugh. “It’s redemptive and transformative, and not without significant challenge. But that’s the essence of community.”

To learn more about Community First Village and Matt Freeman, click here.