Despite efforts to end chronic homelessness in the country, more than half a million people are living on the streets. About 50% of the homeless population is comprised of families with children over the course of the year. One of the glaring reasons why homelessness is prevalent in the US is that re-homed individuals would often return to the streets.
For John-Mark Echols, taking homeless people off the streets takes more than offering a roof over their heads. John-Mark believes that the real cause of chronic homelessness is the lack of family and support. He adds that most people have a hard time making the transition from being homeless to becoming a part of the community and that is why they go back to the streets.
Their journey started at Community First, a sustainable housing project based in Austin. After the eye-opening experience, John-Mark went on a mission to serving the homeless together with his wife, Briana. They founded The Field’s Edge to take the Community First! concept to Midland, Texas.
The Field’s Edge aims to fight homelessness for good by helping homeless people rebuild their lives in a supportive tiny home community. The organization goes beyond sheltering the poor.
The nonprofit, tiny home project provides a real sense of community for the chronically homeless and disabled. The community is eradicating the stigma of homelessness by empowering the destitute and helping them get back on their feet too!
Let’s get to know more about Field’s Edge and discover the challenges that the couple faces along this incredible journey:
Mike: Tell me a little bit about how The Field’s Edge began. I read in your bio that prior to a few years ago, you had little experience working with the homeless. What made you decide to pursue this noble cause?
John-Mark: We first got involved in homeless ministry because Briana’s boss was the mother-in-law of the pastor at Church Under the Bridge Midland. She invited us and we were curious.
We had never really been around homeless people except for the occasional panhandler. Our only understanding of homelessness came from stereotypes. We were definitely nervous to go out and serve homeless people.
Initially, we were not sure how to interact because you can’t have the same kind of small talk you would with anyone else. Questions like “what do you do for a living?” or “where do you live” don’t work in that scenario so we didn’t really know what to do.
We ended up bringing our dog with us and he was a great icebreaker. The people fell in love with our dog and it started small conversations with people who lived on the streets.
We were unexpectedly drawn into the ministry and had a desire to come back week after week. We realized that in order to gain trust and develop relationships with people on the streets, consistency was key. Knowing people by name was crucial for them to understand that we cared.
After working with CUTB for a few years, I (JM) served on their board. I came out to Community First for a three-day symposium after a local low-incfBome housing developer came to us and said that they had a donor interested in giving land for the purpose of building a tiny home village like Community First.
The low-income housing developer had no experience with the homeless and wanted someone to team up with so I came to Austin to get an idea of what they do here. After going to the symposium, the donated land deal fell through because it was in a flood plain and had contaminated groundwater.
But I started to envision a similar village for our friends on the streets of Midland. It was after that when I did the 24-hour poverty simulation, which affected me deeply. At the same time, my little brother and his wife informed us that they were going to Southeast Asia for long-term mission work.
We knew that the Lord was directing us to a different way of life but we didn’t know what that was yet. We decided to put our large house on the market after building it just over a year prior and pursue our calling.
Shortly after that, they announced the Community Corps Program. We prayed about it for a few months, sought council, and decided to apply. After applying, we continued to get confirmation that going through the program with the intent to form a nonprofit and build a tiny home community for the formerly homeless in Midland was what we were meant to do. We sold most of our belongings, moved with our toddler into an RV, and headed to Austin.
Mike: Can you talk to me about your time with the Community First! Village in Austin? What was the goal of the three-day symposium?
John-Mark: Our time here has been spent working in different “serve duties” I have been working with the property management department as well as the resident care department. Resident Care helps people with the process it takes to move in here, resources, and caseworkers get houses ready to be moved into and help people with the transition into community life among other things. Briana has spent her time here working in the Community Market.
The Community Market is the hub for all of the different microenterprises. Community First has a blacksmithing program, a woodworking program, and an art program. All of the products made in these micro-enterprises are sold at the market and the artists get 100% of the profit.
The market also has a limited selection of groceries and it has been a great way for her to develop relationships with neighbors here. Before coming here, we assumed that we would get most of the tools from our actual serve duties, but we have learned so much just by living here full-time and being part of the community.
We have learned that the most important factor of this place is not housing the homeless but bringing them into a permanent supportive community. This is not a transitional housing program. Residents are welcome to stay for life. We learned that homelessness is typically the result of a catastrophic loss of family. We learned a ton of valuable practical knowledge about the nuts and bolts of operating a village, but the most important part of our time here has been fully investing ourselves as neighbors.
The three-day symposium is meant to give people a snapshot view of the Community First mindset and to help others around the country that are interested in pursuing tiny home communities for the homeless understand that housing alone will not solve any problems.
Mike: Also, you briefly mention a 24-hour poverty simulation? What was that experience like and what did you gain from that?
John-Mark: The poverty simulation was an incredible experience. When I showed up, I was given 5 minutes to choose two of the items that I brought with me to keep and the rest I had to give up. Each piece of my clothing counted as an item. It was around 36 degrees so I kept my sleeping bag and jacket.
I then had to pick clothes out of a donation bin including shoes. We slept outside that night and the following day, we walked to and from Church Under the Bridge. We were also given a list of tasks to accomplish to simulate things that homeless people deal with every day such as find food, collect cans, etc. We ate pizza out of a dumpster behind Pizza Hut.
The most impactful part of the experience was seeing people around town that I have known all my life that wouldn’t even look at me for fear that I would ask them for money. They had no idea that I was someone that they knew. As a homeless person, you feel completely sub-human. Either people avoid looking at you, or if they are far enough away, they stare. It is deeply humiliating and has changed the way I interact with people on the streets.
I was giving a ride to of our neighbors here at Community First and he showed me the corner he used to “fly a sign” on. He looked over at me across the truck and said: “do you have any idea how humiliating it is to beg for money?” All I could say was no, I don’t.
Mike: In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about homelessness?
John-Mark: The biggest misconception is that the homeless are lazy and could simply choose not to be homeless anymore. Many factors make homelessness nearly impossible to claw your way out of without support.
Most homeless people have no real family and have had a catastrophic event happen in their lives, like the loss of a job or serious medical condition that caused them to fall behind on payments thereby becoming homeless.
Another thing that I have learned is that most of those that struggle with drug additions did not end up on the street because of drug addiction but developed their habits on the streets because of total despair.
What really makes me sad is how homeless people are looked at as pests or vermin and how cities have criminalized homelessness thinking that will solve the problem. These are people in need of help; people who have gifts and talents who need love.
As a Christian, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. At Community First, there are neighbors that have master’s degrees, incredible artistic talent, people that will give their last dime to help someone else who needs it.
Another misconception is that housing will solve homelessness. The essence of Community First is that it is the community aspect that changes lives. The love of our neighbors lifts them out of homelessness. Putting someone in four walls and a roof does not solve their homelessness. I think that many people who have houses don’t know what it is like to have a home. Home is where the love is.
Mike: Since this process began you have sold your home, quit your previous jobs, and moved into an RV with your 20-month old daughter to immerse yourself in the community of the formerly homeless. What made you decide to make that commitment and what have you learned during that time period?
John-Mark: The only answer I have for that is our faith. If we did not believe that God sent Jesus to save us out of His great love we would have kept our high paying jobs, country club membership, and continued seeking after the “American Dream”.
Instead, our hearts have been reoriented into a lifestyle of service and our treasures are no longer things of this world. Our aim is to be lights for Jesus in an increasingly dark world. What we are doing would be impossible without help from God, so it won’t be anything we do ourselves, the glory will be His when this all comes together.
Mike: What is the current progress on the community in Midland, Texas?
John-Mark: The Field’s Edge just obtained 501c3 status in March so we are a very young organization. Our prayer was that we would get our non-profit designation while we were still participating in Community Corps and we did.
Since we sold our house, we will be renting an RV space from a lady that lives near Midland until we are able to secure a land of our own. We aim to start hitting the ground running by meeting with county and city officials.
Part of our income will be coming from a part time job that I accepted with a local soup kitchen to start up and operate a mobile food truck ministry, taking breakfast out to people on the street and other impoverished areas of town like weekly rate motels.
We plan to build a tiny home model to tow around town for publicity. From that build a fully functioning model community complete with garden, animals, and micro-enterprise when we obtain a land of our own. Initially, we aim to lift around 10 people of the streets with a long-term goal of 100.
Mike: How are you funding the project? Are you getting investors or are builders and property owners donating what they have? Or is it a combination of everything?
John-Mark: The project will be entirely privately funded. There will be no state or federal funding because we are a faith-based organization and we want the freedom to operate without strings attached. The driving force behind our organization is the fundamental fact that all people are created in the image of God and should be loved and treated with dignity.
There will be no requirement for any resident to participate in religious activities; however, our operating principles will be rooted in our faith. Funding will come from individuals, companies, churches, and local foundations. There will be builders that donate time, equipment, and materials.
We know that many of our local companies will offer services and material but overall the fundraising will be a combination of many different things, just not state or federal funding.
Our target residents will most likely qualify for SSI or SSDI from the government, which they can use to pay their rent but we will not directly accept grants or funding from any government entity.
Mike: Can you talk a little bit about the homes? Their design goals? How big are they? How many bedrooms? What their market value would be etc.?
John-Mark: The homes are all 200 square feet or less and do not have a kitchen or a bathroom. Those amenities are housed in shared spaces. This design saves the cost of construction and also facilitates interaction between neighbors and helps to build relationships.
The homes at Community First were designed in a competition of architects and each one has either a porch or some kind of outdoor space, again to facilitate relationships. The bathhouses have an individual shower and toilet rooms as well as laundry facilities. The outdoor kitchens are outfitted with commercial ranges and all necessary cooking equipment.
Residents just bring their own food and are required to clean up after themselves. The inside of the homes are different based on the design but for the most part are one room. They come fully furnished with all new beds, chairs, table, fridge, microwave, crock-pot, and coffee maker. They are also specially decorated based on the resident’s preferences.
Each new resident gets to choose his or her house from what is available at the time. The rent structure ranges from $225 to $375 with all bills included. There are three main rules here: pay your rent, obey civil law, and abide by the community regulations such as picking up pet waste.
Mike: Optimistically, when do you expect the project to be completed?
John-Mark: We hope to have in place our Phase One initiative before our next child is born in October. This would include acquiring land and lifting 10 people off the streets into our working model community. We hope to use the working model to build a reputation in our community as well as prove sustainability.
In Phase One, we may end up using tiny homes on wheels if the land we obtain ends up being smaller than our phase two vision requires. That way, they can be moved when we get more acreage. Phase one could be done on 3-5 acres of land.
On Phase Two, we will build a master planned tiny home community on concrete foundations on 20 or more acres. We hope to lift 100 or more people of the streets in our grand vision. The timeline for phase two is unknown. It may take several years for us to build up to that point, but I would like to break ground on phase two in 5 years.
Mike: How many families/individuals are you hoping to help in Midland?
John-Mark: Our qualifying criteria will be chronically homeless in Midland County for at least a year with a disability (physical, mental, addiction etc.). Each house will be single occupancy. Our initial goal will be to lift 10 people off the streets in phase 1 and around 100 people when we get to phase two established.
Mike: How you do see The Field’s Edge growing in the next 10 to 20 years? In other words, what would your ultimate goal for the project be?
John-Mark: Ultimately I could see The Field’s Edge lifting people off the streets from surrounding counties. The homeless services in our area are limited so we could continue to grow as things progress.
We also want to serve to empower others to build similar communities in their towns. We hope to provide internship programs, opportunities for people to live on the property as missionaries, and bring the community at large into relationships with formerly homeless people. One of our main goals is to change how people in our area look at homelessness.
Mike: I am sure we have readers that will be interested in helping out. What is the #1 thing they could do right now that would be the most beneficial to you?
John-Mark: The founder of Community First always tells people that what they need other than money is “mo’ money”. It is a tongue in cheek expression but also true. Something like this is going to have a huge upfront capital cost as well as substantial operating cost. The rent that residents pay only covers around 60% of the cost of operation so all of the remaining funds come from donations.
Our real kick off point is a piece of land so we are going to have to either raise enough funds to purchase some property or even better, receive property as a donation. We are hoping to have our land and have ten people lifted off the streets before the cold of winter hits this year. This is a lofty goal but we believe that Lord willing, it is possible.
We also need people to come alongside us with different skills that could be used to empower our residents through micro-enterprises like artists, woodworkers, blacksmiths, etc.
One thing we realize is that all of these things will come if we pursue relationships with people rather than the transactional model of just asking for money. When people buy into our vision, the needs will be met.