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Shawn Vestal: Tiny homes might be foundation to build upon

What if one weapon to fight homelessness was actually something very small, affordable and obvious? What if it just boiled down to providing a house? A tiny, tiny house?

It would be too simplistic – by far – to say that this would erase homelessness. But various communities are experimenting with tiny-house villages for the homeless: providing very small, relatively inexpensive homes in a setting with access to medical and social services. Now a Spokane man is trying to get a project off the ground that would combine work-skills training with tiny-home villages on church or nonprofit land, allowing homeless people to work toward ownership of small homes themselves.

“Complete the program, and you will own your own home,” said Ian Robertson, the former pastor of Central United Methodist Church who now is working with the Fuller Center for Housing, a nationwide Christian housing ministry.

Robertson is in the early stages of this, and it will take money – he guesses $200,000 to start – community support and government clearances to bring the idea to fruition. But he has a concrete plan, organizational backing through the Fuller Center and some initial support from churches for possible locations for tiny-home villages. He’s been raising the idea with local politicians and others. At a presentation Wednesday at The Community Building, Robertson said his hope is to seed the project with private donations, not government funding.

“The big debate is should we use federal money, state money or city money,” Robertson said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s use our own money.’ ”

Tiny-home villages for the homeless have been established in Olympia, Portland and Eugene, among other cities. In the past year or so – driven by the overall vogue of tiny homes – a lot of attention has been focused on the small dwellings’ potential for the homeless. Like many cool-sounding ideas, this one comes with lots of potential obstacles, and the villages have taken on many forms and shown different levels of success. Some seek to provide nothing but inexpensive shelter; others aim for more permanent solutions that also connect residents with access to social and medical services.

Many people who work with homeless populations are openly skeptical of the idea – or at least the idea that simple, cheap, tiny homes are, in and of themselves, enough.

“These villages might fill a small niche but I don’t see them as a major solution to the problem of homelessness,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at the New School in New York, in a Buzzfeed article on the trend.

Quixote Village in Olympia is an example of a project that attempts to provide “permanent supportive housing.” The project grew, more or less, out of a homeless protest camp that was formed to protest a sit-lie ordinance in 2007 and to advocate for permanent solutions. Soon, churches were hosting a homeless village on their property on a rotating basis; eventually the county provided the group with land on which to build 30 small homes and some community spaces, according to a report on the project by Community Frameworks.

Some homeless village projects use extremely low-cost shelters, but the Olympia project wanted something more permanent and sustainable, building 144-square-foot cottages on foundations, with heat, insulation and toilets. The units cost about $100,000 – about a third of the cost of building subsidized housing apartments. A support organization of local churches, Panza, helped develop and guide the formation of the village, and a state grant of $1.5 million helped it get off the ground, and it was completed in December 2013, the Community Frameworks report said.

Does this provide a model for other communities? The Buzzfeed story noted that “tiny-home village can’t flourish everywhere, especially large, densely populated cities with astronomical land values. So far, they seem to be occurring in and around mid- and small-size Western cities whose cultures have some mix of permissive, progressive politics and a certain pioneer DIY spirit.”

Sound like anyplace you know?

Robertson’s vision is quite a bit different from Quixote Village. It would be targeted not toward the chronically homeless with mental health or substance abuse problems, but for people willing and able to learn new skills and begin working immediately. He foresees villages in rural, ranchlike settings, not in the city. His program would require people to invest “sweat equity” in building their own small homes, as well as make small mortgage payments toward eventually owning the homes outright.

He says he has land available in Otis Orchards and Addy, has touched bases with most members of the city councils in Spokane and Spokane Valley, and is ready to challenge local banks and churches to step up and help. His model is, in many ways, different from the mainstream of thought on homelessness these days – the “housing first” philosophy of lowering barriers and requirements and getting the homeless into housing as quickly as possible and then providing needed services, and spending less time on the front end establishing rules and requirements that act as barriers.

His goal is to help homeless people develop a whole new “life mission.”

“No free lunch,” he said during his Community Building presentation. “You come with a history, and you’ll leave with a future.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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