When Kelley Gatewood needed a solo getaway this summer, she headed from Dallas to Austin to spend a night in a tiny house set on the property of Community First Village, a 27-acre master planned community for formerly homeless people in East Austin.
Gatewood didn’t realize it at the time, but booking that one night at the village’s Community Inn — where guests from all walks of life can stay in tiny houses, Airstream trailers or tepees — changed her life.
The Community Inn opened this spring and has become one of the largest tiny house bed-and-breakfasts in the country with plans to continue growing, according to Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the nonprofit behind the Community First Village. This summer, Texas A&M University donated three tiny houses built by construction science students. And in early 2018, the inn hopes to add a yurt for rent as well as a renovated former Hey Cupcake Airstream for guests to stay.
Mobile Loaves and Fishes announced plans in November to launch a $60 million capital campaign to expand the village, which will reach its capacity of former chronically homeless men and women by 2018. The expansion is expected to allow the nonprofit, which houses more than 200 residents, to create about 350 more homes.
“Our overarching vision is to empower the community around us into a lifestyle of service with the homeless, and so we’re always looking for opportunities to attract the community by either seeing a movie (at its outdoor movie amphitheater) or staying at the inn,” said Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile Loaves and Fishes. “If someone wants to get more involved, then that’s a great example of advancing our mission.”
Guests who typically book a stay at the bed-and-breakfast, which is tucked in an area near the amphitheater apart from the village, aren’t necessarily looking to learn more about homelessness or in serving as village volunteers during their stay, although those opportunities are available. Most guests, curious about the experience of staying in a tiny house or alternative lodging, book reservations, which cost between $65 to $150 a night, at the Community Inn through Airbnb. The nonprofit employs some of the village’s formerly homeless residents as housekeepers and groundskeepers. Community Inn’s proceeds benefit Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ operations and programs, including the village.
For Gatewood, who stayed in one of inn’s 11 tiny houses in June, the experience led her to plan the next chapter in her life. When the soon-to-be empty nester visited the inn, she already had begun to make big changes, including downsizing from a Dallas-area house to an apartment. At the time, she thought that, perhaps when her daughter left for college next fall, she’d purchase an RV.
But for the service-oriented massage therapist, seeing formerly homeless residents living with a sense of purpose in a safe environment made her fall in love with the village’s vision and mission.
Gatewood now plans to move into the village, provided she completes a six- to 12-month period that involves volunteering and regular stays at the village, among other requirements. If she’s accepted, Gatewood would serve as what the nonprofit calls a “missional,” or someone who acts as a sort of mentor or role model in the community and is actively engaged in village life and neighborhood service.
“For me, this is perfect,” Gatewood, 50, said. “It’s what I’ve been looking for — something that is purposeful with a minimalist lifestyle. It’s everything that I was preparing for, and it all came together.” Gatewood finds out if she’s officially accepted as a missional in February, and if she’s allowed to move in will do so in September 2018.
According to innkeeper Barrett Yeager, occupancy at the bed-and-breakfast has remained steady at about 70 percent. Guests, ranging from those who are on a quiet weekend getaway to those in Austin to attend a festival, often leave reviews about their experiences online.
In June 2017, an Airbnb guest with the username Zoe stayed in the “Blue Aggie” tiny house donated by Texas A&M. In her review, she wrote, “I’ve been really interested in trying out tiny house living, and this was a great first opportunity. … I liked how we could explore and walk around the community without feeling restricted.”
When a homeless person moves into the village and settles into a new life, the nonprofit encourages residents to re-establish relationships with their loved ones.
“We believe that the greatest cause of homelessness is the catastrophic loss of family,” said Taylor Graham, the group’s director of stewardship. The inn gives those relatives an opportunity to stay on the property and spend quality time with a resident.
Graham encourages guests to take everything in during their stay.
“When you feel the rhythm of the neighbors,” she said, “that’s when you get a true sense of what it’s like here.”