Tiny homes offer a low cost, human answer to our homeless problem

Darrell Zimmerman lives in the Strathcona Park tent city in Vancouver—the largest in Canada. He likes the idea of moving into a tiny home.

THINK TINY IS A BIG IDEA WHEN IT COMES TO HOMELESSNESS. Tiny home communities for the homeless are being constructed all across North America as one solution to homelessness. It’s easy to see why.

“For very little cost we are setting up villages that are housing hundreds of people,” said Sharon Lee of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute. “Tiny homes are a bridge to permanent housing for the homeless.”

Tiny home projects include:

  • a high-priced version in Silicon Valley, California
  • inexpensive offerings in Eugene, Oregon and Denver, Colorado
  • a pricey version for military veterans only in Calgary
  • a tiny homes project just for teens in Oakland, California
  • a project to put tiny homes in the backyards of kind-hearted homeowners in Portland, Oregon
  • a tiny house duplex on wheels in Kansas.

Way better than tents

Tiny homes offer the homeless the safety, security and shelter from the elements they can never get living in tents. Tiny homes villages are typically enclosed, and residents alone have gate keys.

Sites for clusters of tiny home sites can be as small as the area needed for a 10-car parking lot. Management models vary, but typically include a social service agency acting as overall manager, answerable to a resident/community board.

Homes for Heroes in Calgary and Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, for example, are communities built and operated by non-profit housing providers.

Others, like Dignity Village in Portland, are grassroots sites that started as tent encampments and evolved to include homemade dwellings. Dignity Village is democratically governed by residents. Dwellings are very basic.

Better than a sleeping bag

The homes in the villages are... tiny. But living in a tiny house is much more comfortable and healthy than trying to survive in a sleeping bag or a cold, wet tent.

Each tiny house in one of the 10 tiny home villages in Seattle, Washington, for example, is 8 by 12 feet, the size of a small bedroom, and is insulated and heated. A small family can live in a tiny house, and a large family can live in two tiny houses side by side. Each furnished house has a locking door, windows, electric light, electrical outlet, and smoke detector.

Many cities save money by providing homes without interior plumbing or integrated heating systems. Showers, kitchens and sanitary facilities are provided in shared facilities.

The range of options means a single tiny home can range in cost from less than $10,000 to more than $100,000. A significant saving, either way, from the $150,00 cost of the modular housing units provided for the homeless in cities like Vancouver.

Telling people 'here's a house'

Eric Weissman lived in Dignity Village for several months while he was completing his PhD dissertation for Concordia University in Montreal.

“They’re not telling people they have to go through transitional housing before they get here,” Weissman said. “They’re telling people here’s a house, here’s a tiny house, it’s yours and if you need support we’ll get you supports.”

Homes for Heroes in Calgary is a community of modular homes created specifically for veterans. Residents who are dependent on alcohol or drugs must attend treatment before they can live in the community,

The village concept works better for veterans who are used to living together in barracks and it’s less isolating than an apartment building might be, says Dave Howard, president of Homes for Heroes Foundation..

Each tiny home at Homes for Heroes costs $70,000, although the Homes for Heroes Foundation chose a higher-end option and simpler models can be produced at $20,000-$40,000 each.

Howard says he thinks cities should be open to considering tiny home communities as part of the Housing First model, in which unhoused people are given permanent housing first and then provided with additional supports and services.

The Homes for Heroes Foundation is now exploring creating similar communities in B.C., including in Metro Vancouver.

Respect for residents key

Fiona York, a community organizer who has been supporting the Strathcona Park tent city in Vancouver, says a tiny home village could be a potential solution, but it would have to be run by residents, not a social service agency, to win the trust of the residents.

“People don’t want to go into that structure where it’s all managed, like show ID when you come in,” York said, referring to a common rule at supportive housing buildings requiring guests to show ID.

York envisions tiny home communities spread out across the city, tailored to the specific needs of certain groups: people who are sober or are in recovery could live in one group perhaps, while another community could be low-barrier and offer harm reduction services for drug use.

“I’d say it’s not so much the physical structures, but it’s more about how it’s done,” York said.

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