This Developer Built a Community of Tiny Homes for Austin's Homeless: 'It's a Magical Place'

Johnny Dodd

It’s another one of those typically hectic mornings for single working mom Robin Draper. She awoke just after sunrise in the tiny bedroom she shares with her 9-year-old daughter Avery, cooked breakfast, packed Avery lunch and then dropped her daughter off at school before hustling to her job.

For the past six hours Draper has been racing around the grounds of Community First Village in a golf cart, stocking some of the 125 micro-homes and 100 RVs on the 51-acre property in Austin, Texas, with everything from silverware and furniture to bedding and food.

“If it wasn’t for all this, I’d either be in prison or dead,” Draper, 47, who spent years living on the streets, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.

Draper has one person to thank for that: Alan Graham, the 64-year-old bearded, wise-cracking former real estate developer who has provided new homes to nearly 200 of Austin’s most chronically homeless residents. Graham’s grand vision: to lift up hundreds of Austin’s homeless with housing, jobs and, most importantly, a sense of belonging.

“Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will,” says Graham, as he walks along a stone-paved path that weaves past the development’s communal kitchens, laundry rooms and front porches, where villagers sit sipping coffee together. “It’s really that human interaction that’s so important. And when that happens, relationships begin to form and that becomes the power of community.”

Robin Draper and daughter Avery on the front porch of their Community First Village home | CHRISTAAN FELBER

Graham’s innovative development — which includes a community market, a medical center, a barbershop and an outdoor movie theater — was built with more than $18 million he raised in donations.

Residents — who are drawn from the city’s most vulnerable, hard-luck, street-dwelling population — pay rent (an average of $300 a month) to live in the homes, money they earn in part by doing landscaping, janitorial, housekeeping and other work on the campus for $12 an hour.

They each have their own living space but come together for meals, many of which come from fruits and vegetables grown on the property.

“Alan’s just an extraordinarily tenacious man who had a vision and wasn’t going to stop until he saw it realized,” says Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “He’s not only helped provide homes to a substantial portion of our homeless community, but he’s helped them go on to lead productive and constructive lives.”

For more on Community First Village, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.