While we battle with the viral pandemic around the world, the US is dealing with another crisis – the growing issue of homelessness across the country. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 17 out of every 100,000 people in the country could be considered homeless as of January 2019.
This represents a number of exactly 567,715 individuals, with nearly 40% of them having no access to shelters, tents, and other public locations. Roughly 200,000 people live outside on the streets, and there is little hope for them with current government funding and programs.
Finally, homeless individuals have more difficulty securing shelter than homeless families, as priorities are given to women and children. Out of all homeless individuals, an average of 1 out of 2 are unsheltered and unhoused.
Though the homeless situation may seem dire, there is some long-term good news. Though we’ve experienced a three-year rise in homelessness, we’re still benefiting from a long-term downward trend, with homeless people having decreased since 2007 by 12%. Unfortunately, the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may reverse any positive gains in homelessness since 2007, with the sudden rise in unemployment and a weakening economy.
Homeless Assistance – What Are They?
The US is fortunate to have some homeless assistance and homeless-focused programs, but these systems and organizations lack the resources, funding, and public support to fully accommodate all homeless individuals. With limited funds, difficult choices have to be made every year in how funding should be allotted, and some homeless continue to get the shaft.
The two main types of homeless assistance are temporary housing and permanent housing. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines temporary, transitional, or emergency housing as a place a homeless individual or family can only stay for a limited period of time (emergency housing generally lasts a 90-day period while temporary or transitional housing lasts a 6-9-month period). Permanent housing has no limit, meaning homeless can stay there as long as they like.
- Temporary Housing: Temporary housing has been losing support and funding over the last few years, with a 9% loss in temporary housing beds reported over the last 5 years. While 100% of homeless families who were in areas of prominent temporary housing could be offered year-round beds as of 2019, only 51% of individuals experienced the same year-round treatment. An additional 400,000 beds are estimated to be needed due to COVID-19.
- Permanent Housing: Thankfully, the decrease in support for temporary housing has led to an increase in support and funding for permanent solutions. Policy priorities have shifted over the last five years, with a 20% increase in the number of permanent units. About 57% of all beds in the homeless assistance system are considered permanent beds.
While many might think that the answer to homelessness is to continue our permanent efforts, this might not be the best solution. Permanent supportive housing is a proven solution for those who are chronically homeless, but they do not give the homeless the same freedoms and opportunities of having their own home.
In the effort to continue lowering public costs (as a result of lower funding), permanent supportive housing usually uses crisis service areas such as hospitals, shelters, warehouses, prisons, and jails; large, public and open areas where homeless people are provided with a small space and a bed or cot. For both families and individuals, there could be better solutions out there, such as tiny houses.
Are Tiny Homes a Solution to Homelessness?
The idea to use tiny houses to help solve the homeless crisis is not new, and many cities across the country have already implemented various policies and constructions to test the idea of moving the homeless into tiny homes.
While we go into those examples below, let’s first understand whether tiny homes are actually a good solution to the homeless, and the types of tiny home solutions that can consider.
Here are a few reasons how tiny homes could help the homeless:
They Offer a Sense of Privacy and Relief
“The ability to go in the cabin, close the door, lie on the bed – utter relief. Like reaching the shore after a shipwreck.”Alan
One homeless man in his 60s who had been homeless for several years got a place at a tiny home village for homeless people known as Quixote, built in the city of Olympia, Washington. According to the man, Alan, “The ability to go in the cabin, close the door, lie on the bed – utter relief. Like reaching the shore after a shipwreck.” Tiny houses offer the homeless the privacy and comfort of having a place of your own that all other public housing options simply can’t provide.
They Help the Homeless End the Spiral
Most people who find themselves homeless aren’t homeless for the first time. Homelessness is typically an example of chronic homelessness, in which an individual bounces in and out of homelessness. This can be due to a number of reasons – inability to find steady employment, rising rates of rent, or drug abuse problems.
The peace, comfort, and privacy of a tiny home is enough to give the homeless enough time to get back on their feet without the pressure to immediately pay the bills of a full apartment’s rent.
They Give the Homeless the Chance to Relearn Independence
While public housing options help thousands across the country, they make it difficult for individuals trapped in the cycle to feel like they can change their own lives. While tiny homes for the homeless are still funded by government programs, they offer families and individuals the chance to feel like homeowners, do things for themselves, and ultimately reestablish their lives.
Tiny House Homeless Solutions
So what is the best way to implement tiny home solutions for the homeless and unsheltered population? This is a difficult question that perhaps has no one right answer.
The best way to implement tiny houses as a homelessness solution might depend on a variety of factors, including the available budget and other resources (lot space) and the number of the homeless population.
Here are a few variations of tiny house solutions that cities and groups across the country have tried:
1) Affordable Housing, Low Income Tiny House Communities
The most obvious option is to create affordable tiny house communities meant for low income and homeless residents. Villages like the Quixote community in Olympia, Washington provide areas such as these for tiny houses meant for homeless individuals and families. The homes are built with government funding as well as public donations, and furniture and other essentials can be donated to the community by anyone.
2) Tiny-Tiny Houses
When a city or local government doesn’t have the funding or space to build an entire village, there is the option to build extra-tiny tiny houses, such as those built by Gregory Kloehn pictured below. These houses are little more than boxes with a door, but they still give homeless individuals a roof over their heads and a door to lock. Kloehn has distributed dozens of these houses across West Oakland.
When city governments can’t or don’t want to allot the funding towards tiny houses for the homeless populations, some communities have made steps towards privatizing the solution by incentivizing the public. For example, in Boston, the Housing Innovation Lab has been promoting the “plugin house” concept, in which homeowners are incentivized to build tiny houses in their backyards to rent to low-income, homeless residents. The campaign gives homeowners easy steps and supplies to build the houses which cost roughly $50,000 each.
In an ideal world, city and local governments and communities would allocate the funding towards creating functional and self-sustaining tiny home communities for their homeless people. However, each of these solutions bring about their own host of problems and roadblocks.
Problems with Tiny Houses for the Homeless
So what are the problems that we’ve run into when exploring tiny home options for the homelessness crisis? Here are the major concerns:
1) We Don’t Always Have the Space, and People Don’t Want Them
If money were the one and only issue, then city and local governments and communities might be more open towards the idea of tiny house villages. However, there is also the issue of space, and anyone with a tiny home should be familiar with this concern.
Consider the tiny house village built by nonprofit organization Joppa based in Des Moines. Each tiny house is about 95 square feet, with chairs, tables, storage space, and a bed. The issue is that they haven’t been able to find an appropriate-sized lot that they can purchase near enough the homeless population they want to help.
Joppa has had several proposed sites and plans fall through, and for a number of reasons. Sometimes the residents around the area for the proposed tiny home homeless village protest against it, as they believe it would lower their property value. In other cases, officials believe that tiny house villages are a distraction rather than a permanent solution.
According to Eric Burmeister, executive director at the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, “If the energy and resources dedicated to tiny homes were directed toward permanent, affordable rental housing, we would be closer to our goal of ending homelessness and housing poverty.”
Even in Seattle where tiny homes were once widely accepted as a solution for the homeless, a tiny home village built for the homeless was shut down in 2019 due to the residents using the homes for drugs and alcohol, attracting homeless residents with the worst substance abuse issues. Police service calls jumped by 62% that year, making people even warier towards the idea of tiny house villages meant for the homeless.
2) Tiny House Villages Need Many Other Services to Function
Building a functional and efficient tiny house village that truly enriches the lives of the homeless peoples who live there requires more than just building the houses and acquiring the land.
In a study from UC Berkeley exploring the feasibility of tiny homes for addressing the homelessness crisis in the country, the researchers explored existing data of tiny house villages to extrapolate the most important characteristics for a functional and effective tiny house community. These include:
- Transportation access if the community is built outside of the city center
- An existing board to oversee the community and to select and approve residents and handle the day-to-day community issues
- Community first common buildings offering shared facilities, such as showers, learning centers, day care centers, and more
- Support services accessible within the community, including placement services for more permanent housing options
- The existence of a local government or community entity that will do the work to keep it running
Not all communities are willing to allocate all the resources required to build a functional village, meaning residents will be left without the utilities and services they require to get out of their homeless situation.
3) We Have to Rewrite Restrictive Building and Zoning Codes in Many Areas
While tiny houses have been trending for over the last decade, with the movement slowly growing in popularity and gaining a presence in the mainstream media, tiny house homeowners still find themselves with their hands tied behind their backs due to many restrictive building and zoning codes as well as planning rules that make it difficult if not impossible to build tiny houses properly. Before tiny houses can truly grow, many city and state governments across the country need to incorporate tiny house considerations into their community first codes.
However, this again isn’t as easy as rewriting the codes. As much as tiny houses have gained in popularity, they have also gained resistance amongst other parts of the population. Some people believe that restrictive and strict building codes are necessary to ensure that all homes are built safely for their residents and neighborhoods; others want zoning codes to remain to protect the values of their properties.
Are Tiny Houses Really the Best Solution? Questions to Ask
The Low Income Housing Institute of Seattle led by executive director Sharon Lee, alongside Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, are leading the charge in the tiny house for homeless people movement, but even she believes that tiny houses should only be thought of as temporary accommodations rather than permanent solutions. According to Lee from an interview last year, “We don’t want tiny houses to be a dead end.”
Ultimately, even the most progressive community first cities making tiny houses for the homeless believe it only to be a stopgap solution rather than one to keep them housed permanently. The biggest reason for this is budget – the costs of building and operating costs of a tiny house village are much higher than alternatives, such as converting an existing location into an emergency shelter.
According to Shelter Force, maintaining a tiny house village fit for 20-70 people requires an annual budget of $60,000 to $500,000, depending on the level of services, staffing, and maintenance. Meanwhile, the bed-effectiveness is lesser with tiny houses, with the Seattle Human Services Department noting that only 12.5% of all shelter beds in the city were located in tiny house villages.
While these numbers may seem high, they might actually be more cost-effective than alternatives. For example, the city of Bellevue in Washington State recently set down plans to build a new shelter, but the overall time to develop and approve this might take 8 years. Another plan involved converting a jail into a shelter for 100 people, with a cost estimate of $6 million for conversion and two years of operations.
Here are some important questions communities and groups considering these villages must consider:
- Will there be enough budget per home to build home-like environments that meet expected housing standards?
- If a village or community is labeled as a homelessness development, will this still attract potential residents who are expecting a living environment in which they will not feel separated from the rest of the community?
- How will tiny homes play a part in the city’s overall efforts to lessen homelessness? Are they a stop-gap solution or a dead-end solution?
- Has your team studied the economics behind the decision? Are tiny home villages the best use of land, time, and financial resources?
- What efforts will be made to integrate the village into the greater community? Will there be any focus on service and work community first opportunities?
5 Functional and Effective Tiny House Villages for the Homeless in the US
1) Infinity Village
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
Group: The Infinity Fellowship, led by Reverend Jeff Carr and construction company owner Dwayne Jones
What: Six 60 square-foot tiny houses, each with a mini-fridge, murphy bed, and heating and AC. There are plans to continue building houses in the area
Cost: $50,000 raised via online crowdfunding
2) My Tiny House Project LA
Where: Los Angeles, California
Group: My Tiny House Project LA, a South Los Angeles non-profit organization founded by Elvis Summers
What: 40 micro dwellings housed on privately owned land, each about 50 square-foot with solar panels, toilets, wheels, and more
Cost: $100,000 raised via online crowdfunding
3) Second Wind Cottages
Where: Newfield, New York
Group: Local New York non-profit organization Second Wind Cottages
What: 12 tiny houses built on donated land, with each home fully-equipped
Cost: Roughly $15,000 per home
4) Community First! Village
Where: Austin, Texas
Group: Local charity Mobile Loaves & Fishes
What: 27-acre village with over 200 micro dwellings and RVs with various community amenities such as trails, medical facilities, gardens, churches, and theaters
Cost: Privately-funded and privately-sponsored with a cost of about $14.5 million
5) Quixote Communities
Where: Olympia, Washington
Group: Local non-profit organization Panza with support of local human services department
What: An affordable housing village consisting of 30 tiny dwellings, each fully-equipped with a community vegetable garden and an overall site size of two acres
Cost: Roughly $3 million and about $88,000 per home
Should Your Community Consider Tiny Homes for Homelessness?
At Tiny House Bloom, we have always been huge advocates of the tiny home lifestyle, and when it comes to homeless people we still feel the same. Building an affordable housing solution in every city is a community first initiative that can help tens of thousands of people across the country and the rest of the world.
The tiny house and homeless communities can come together to improve and enrich the lives of people down on their luck, making our overall communities richer and happier.
Hey, there! We're Ivan and Manuela from Croatia, and we're crazy about tiny houses. We don't own one (yet).
This website is a result of our passion to share all the knowledge, photos, tips and tricks that we were able to learn while studying everything possible about the tiny house movement.