How a Tiny Homes Movement Puts More Than a Roof Over the Homeless

By Giles Bruce | Kaiser Health News

Nestled in a residential area and surrounded by a wooden fence and greenery, are nine small houses. With multicolored coverings and roofs, they look like human-sized birdhouses. And they fit perfectly.

Just like Gene Cox, 48. He hasn’t been homeless for over seven years. That’s the point of this small development in Madison, Wisconsin.

“It’s the longest time I’ve stayed in one place,” Cox said, having a coffee and a cigarette outside his small home after working the second shift as the administrator of the social advantages. “I am very nomadic. I have moved around Wisconsin a lot over the past 22 years.

After Cox divorced in 2009, he bounced around in rentals before living in his van for a year. He tried a local men’s shelter. It only lasted two nights.

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Then in 2014, he heard about this planned community by Occupy Madison, a fallout from the national movement against income inequality. Cox started helping out with gardening, one of her passions. A few months later, he moved into one of his 99 square foot houses (echoing the “99%” of the population that Occupy aims to represent).

In an industrial development on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin is a small, city-owned residential village for homeless people that opened in November 2021. The 8-foot-by-8-foot white prefabricated shelters can accommodate a cot, a refrigerator and some personal effects. (Giles Bruce for KHN)

With rising housing prices, smaller homes are spread as a solution to homelessness in California, Indiana, Missouri, Oregon and beyond. Arnold Schwarzenegger received considerable publicity in December when he donated money for 25 small houses for homeless veterans in Los Angeles. This reflects a growing interest in innovative ideas aimed at getting homeless people off the streets, particularly in winter in cold climates and in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic.

“Anything that increases the supply of affordable housing is a good thing,” said No Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We have a huge housing shortage – around 7 million less affordable housing that there are households that need it.

Housing and health are intimately linked. In one study 2019 of 64,000 homeless people, those living on the streets were more likely to report chronic health conditions, trauma, substance abuse and mental health issues than those who were temporarily housed.

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But not all tiny homes are created equal. They range from cabins with a bed and a heater to miniature houses with kitchens and bathrooms.

The communities themselves also differ. Some are just “agency-run shelters that use pods instead of the traditional gymnasium full of bunk beds,” said Victory LaFara, a program specialist with Village of Dignity, a small house camp since 2000, in Portland, Oregon. Some are stand-alone, like Dignity Village and Occupy Madison, and a few offer a path to small home ownership.

Many are in remote areas of the city, far from jobs, grocery stores and social services. “There’s a balance between the benefits you get from the improved structure and the bad factors you might get from being in a worse place,” said Luis Quinterohousing researcher at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

In an industrial development on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin is a small, city-owned residential village for homeless people that opened in November 2021. The 8-foot-by-8-foot white prefabricated shelters can accommodate a cot, a refrigerator and some personal effects. (Giles Bruce for KHN)

Donald Whitehead Jr.executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he thinks tiny houses are a good emergency option, to protect people from the elements and violence, but are not long-term solutions , such as the increase in the number of paid jobs, the housing stock and the financing of housing vouchers.

“There’s been this theme since the ’70s that some people in society are less deserving,” he said. “And the tiny house kind of fits that mindset.”

Zoning regulations and building codes have prevented the construction of small homes in some towns, as have worried neighbors. This opposition often fades once the communities are up and running, according to village organizers. “Since we moved Community first! Town six years ago, there was no documented crime by anyone on this property in any of the adjacent neighborhoods,” said Amber Fogartypresident of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a homeless outreach group in Austin, Texas that runs the nation’s largest tiny home project.

Madison, which has a population of approximately 270,000 and is home to the Wisconsin Capitol and flagship university, offers three different types of tiny homes featured in three locations.

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Occupy Madison’s newest village opened in late 2020 about a mile north of its original site. Next to a shuttered bar, 26 Conestoga huts, resembling Old West boxcars, line a fenced parking lot. The 60-square-foot temporary structures will eventually be replaced by tiny houses, which the occupants are expected to help build.

On the outskirts of town, in an industrial development near a highway, the town’s new mini-home project features parallel rows of 8-foot-by-8-foot white prefabricated shelters that look like fishing shacks on ice. Unlike the two Occupy facilities, this one has full-time staff, including a social worker and an addiction counselor; on a recent day, residents walked in and out of his cramped office, either to use the phone or grab a muffin or cookies. People were walking their dogs outside.

The 30 residents previously lived in tents in Madison’s busy Reindahl Park.

“The city was solving a political problem first and foremost,” said Brenda Konkel, president of Occupy Madison and executive director of Madison Area Care for the Homeless OneHealth. The so-called protected encampment cost around $1 million to set up and will cost around $800,000 to $900,000 a year to operate.

A small, family-owned, city-owned village on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin for homeless people has full-time staff, including a social worker and addictions counselor. Even though employees say the location — far from job opportunities, grocery stores, and health care providers — isn’t ideal, they notice that the people who live there walk taller. (Giles Bruce for KHN)

City Community Development Director Jim O’Keefe said housing people in a traditional shelter would be significantly cheaper in the short term. But villages of small houses can often serve those who are unwilling or unable to stay in a collective setting, because they have pets or partners, have serious emotional or psychological problems or are excluded from the social system. shelters.

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“Anyone who has spent time in Reindahl has understood how dangerous and untenable it was for the people staying there,” O’Keefe said.

Sara Allee-Jatta, clinical director of Kabba Recovery Services, said residents’ substance use had increased since arriving at the city-run site, possibly because they finally had warmth and didn’t have to worry the security of their property. She hopes their new peace of mind will also give them the space they need to recuperate when they’re ready.

For Jay Gonstead, a lifelong Madisonian who moved into the camp after it opened in November, the place has been a godsend. After a divorce, he lived in the tent city for seven months.

“Towards the end, it got really bad. I never thought in my life that I should shoot someone Narcan, but I did,” he said, referring to the treatment that reverses opioid overdoses. “I saw a man get shot. I witnessed stab wounds. It was not a good place.

The 54-year-old regularly goes cycling to look for work. “I have a criminal past. I am an alcoholic,” he said. “It makes things difficult.”

But he noticed smiles on the faces of his neighbors for the first time he can remember. Electricity and hot showers — along with a sense of community — tend to have that effect, he said.

“When you have a roof and a door that locks, that’s your home,” he said, holding back tears. “We are not homeless.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

RELATED: Oakland Unveils New and Improved Tiny Homes for Homeless Lake Merritt Residents


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