Austin Musicians Sing Out to Help Homeless Community

Austin musicians are a remarkably generous bunch, willing to lend their talents to countless causes. In the midst of Coronavirus isolation, over two dozen of Austin’s most renowned roots music artists contributed to a video intended to draw attention to Austin’s homeless population and raise funds for Community First! Village, an innovative solution that provides permanent homes and support.

The song, a soulful cover of Randy Newman’s “I’ll Be Home,” was produced and arranged by steel guitarist Marty Muse, a member of Robert Earl Keen’s band. Muse conceived the project in mid-March, inspired by a radio report about challenges homeless people face even doing something as simple as washing their hands — one of the main recommendations for combatting infection. With most public restrooms closed, it’s even more difficult.

“While the rest of the world was being directed to wash their hands thoroughly and often, the homeless community was having problems just finding a place to wash their hands,” Muse explained in an email. “It was a public health situation that I hadn’t thought of.”

Then he happened to hear Newman’s song, which made him think about the story he’d just heard.

“The idea to do the video came to me all at once: a collection of Austin artists, singing a song about home, from their homes, to benefit the homeless community,” Muse said, adding, “Normally, the thought probably would have come and gone. But there’s nothing normal about a pandemic.”

Just a couple of weeks into mass isolation, he was already craving collaboration. This project gave him a way to interact.

“I made a little piano/vocal demo and called a few of my musical cohorts,” Muse said. “The track was built one piece at a time as everyone sent their recordings. Most of the vocal tracks were recorded on cell phones. The artists were selected for the most part because they were people I knew and people I thought would ‘get it’ and bring something special to the song.”
He tapped David Beck, son of Keen’s bassist, Bill Whitbeck, to mix it. Beck also plays standup bass in the video; Keen and bandmates Kym Warner (mandolin) and Brian Beken (violin) also appear. Other instrumentalists are pianist Floyd Domino, cellist Brian Standefer, guitarists Carolyn Wonderland and Bill Kirchen, violinist Warren Hood, drummer Brannen Temple. Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines perform together, as do (in split screen) husband and wife Chris Gage and Christine Albert, and Kevin Russell, Kelley Mickwee and Alice Spencer of Shinyribs; couple Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison appear separately.

Also appearing, interspersed with shots of homeless people on Austin’s streets and no-longer-homeless people living in the communal village, are Ruthie Foster, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Margaret Wright, Jon Dee Graham, Emily Gimble, Shelley King, Rich Brotherton, Wood & Wire’s Tony Kamel and Marcia Ball.

In five years, the 51-acre master-planned development has given over 250 formerly homeless people places to call their own, plus structure and stability via a sustainable community with shared facilities including kitchens, and resources including a clinic, outdoor movie theater, farm and gardens, community market, woodworking shop and arts center.

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The village, which has gained national attention for its community-building approach, was created by Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Founded by real estate developer Alan Graham, the nonprofit started out feeding homeless people out of a truck. Now, it’s raising $20 million through its Building Hope: Neighbor to Neighbor capital campaign to fund phase II of the project, already underway, which will increase the community to nearly 500 residents and provide a 20,000-square-foot healthcare facility. Residents do pay rent for their tiny houses or RVs; the community provides many with income-generating jobs or micro-enterprise opportunities, including selling crafts and products made on-site.

The community also makes money by offering short-term Airbnb rentals, and reports several guests have become regulars. Its permanent residents include Graham and his wife, who sold their 3,000-square-foot home in one of Austin’s toniest neighborhoods a couple of years ago and moved into a 399-square-foot RV at the village.

But as laudable as their efforts are, a pre-pandemic annual count of Austin’s homeless population, released in January, reported an estimated total of over 2,500 people without permanent residences. A commissioned study to assess and provide recommendations for addressing Austin’s homeless crisis, released Thursday (July 22) estimated 10,350 people in Travis County, which encompasses Austin, were and are being served by homeless programs in 2020 — 1% of the county’s 1,025,000 population.

The report notes the need for corralling and coordinating both private and public funding and resources to address homelessness. Of course, every little bit helps.

“Our hope is that not only do people come to a different understanding of how we can mitigate homelessness,” Graham told Bloomberg CityLab, “but how do we change our own lives from being so isolated and disconnected from each other?”

As for the video, Muse said he’s thrilled with how it turned out; for that, he praised another tightknit group: Austin’s “incredible musical community.”

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