Tiny homes are often seen as a passing fad or a millennial indulgence for those who want to follow superstar Marie Kondo’s life-changing magic of tidying up. But there’s more going on in the tiny house movement than meets the eye, especially for advocates who think that it could offer a reasonable solution to homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says more than 560,000 people in the United States are homeless on any given night, so even a tiny shelter would beat the alternative, especially as raging heat, extreme cold, and severe storms worsen.
Homelessness is a big problem in this country. President Donald Trump criticizes California because there are so many people on the streets, with very few solutions available.
So, what is the answer?
Maybe tiny houses? We write about tiny houses and other innovative solutions all the time here at Digital Trends. From weird tiny homes targeted at those who want to live off the grid, to bizarre experimental projects designed to take advantage of dead space on the sides of warehouses, tiny homes have been a hot topic for a few years now. So, what if we try tiny homes as a solution for homelessness?
These concepts aren’t isolated, either, as we discovered dozens of these projects in progress across the country.
Housing vets in Monterey, California
If you live near Cannery Row, you learn a lot about John Steinbeck, who famously wrote about “Mack and the boys” — the homeless but cheerful vagrants who populated the town during the Great Depression. What you learn living in Monterey is that those characters are still there. It’s not uncommon to find men wrapped in blankets under park benches, cheerfully picking a guitar, or sleeping in their cars on the commercial wharf.
The city and county struggle with these challenges, but one interesting venture — to build a village of tiny houses in the nearby community of Marina to house homeless veterans — is underway. Just a stone’s throw from Cannery Row, the nonprofit Veterans Transition Center is proposing an innovative concept from architect Thomas Rettenwender to build tiny homes for vets on the long-abandoned Fort Ord military base. Rettenwender teaches tiny house design at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The roughly 400-square-foot homes would be built upon the foundations of former Army housing, according to Kurt Schake, executive director of Marina’s Veterans Transition Center. The cluster of 12 to 35 homes would sport eco-friendly features, too, like a rain catch and solar panels, and would be built in an “appealing park-like setting,” said Schake, speaking to the Monterey County Weekly.
The project faces the same challenges as similar endeavors around the country, however, which include wrestling with zoning ordinances, the very real problem of “NIMBY-ism,” a colloquial phrase for community residents who say, “Not in my backyard,” and homeless people who either struggle with drugs and alcohol or simply choose to live outside in the first place.
Rebuilding after disaster strikes
Sometimes, homelessness strikes without warning — just ask the residents whose homes burnt up during the Camp Fire in 2018, the most deadly and destructive in California’s history. The fire killed 85 people and incinerated more than 14,000 homes at the epicenter of the fire near Chico, California.
To stem the tide of families suddenly without any possessions, their homes, or provisions, the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) accelerated plans for a tiny home village in the community, an endeavor that was originally met with indifference from local government and most neighbors. Following the fire and the urgency it created, the current city council has given the project the go-ahead.
Charles Withuhn, a volunteer and board member for the organization, told NPR: “There are a lot of problems in the world that I can’t fix. I can put together a tiny little house.”
The organization is already working on 33 one-room homes that will include a small bed, kitchenette, and bathrooms. The village is also slated to include five larger buildings for community meetings, meals, laundry, and security. The project is called, simply, “Simplicity Village.”
“This is as much about sustainability and community as it is about tiny,” Withuhn told NPR. “We may be entering the final phase of human existence, and our ability to adapt and continue to live on the planet will depend on imaginative ways to live a smaller carbon footprint. This community will have a fraction of the carbon footprint of the typical urban or community setting.”
Relieving housing pressure
The list of projects goes on and on.
A tiny home experiment on the campus of the University of Southern Indiana is studying whether compact houses outfitted with smart home technology could help older people live independently longer.
In Santa Clara, California, Santa Claara County supervisors and local developers are thinking about moving a major homeless encampment, “Hope Village,” to a proposed “New Hope Village” with better amenities.
In Rochester, New York, the nonprofit Rochesterians Engaging in Action for the Chronically Homeless hopes to build its own village of tiny homes, funded by a grant designed to boost affordable housing in the community.
In Austin, Texas, the grounds of Community First Village are buzzing with activity, thanks to a real estate developer who has provided new homes to nearly 200 of Austin’s most chronically homeless residents.
In Detroit, the nonprofit Cass Community Social Services, which has roots in the local Methodist faith-based community, is building tiny houses with the goal of providing generational wealth for chronically poor people living paycheck to paycheck.
In Salem, Oregon, the United Way is turning to tiny houses that can be rented to seniors for $350 a month, starting with a proof-of-concept village of 25 tiny homes on a single acre of land.
An uncertain future
These are just a few examples of how tiny homes might be able to take some pressure off of communities and provide the homeless some safety and dignity. They’re not all going to be successful, and it’s not the moon shot the country needs to end chronic homelessness, but at least it’s a start.
Democratic Presidential candidate and South Bend, Indian, Mayor Pete Buttigieg even visited a tiny home community in Kansas City, Missouri, last month. He says the nonprofit Veterans Community Project has “cracked the code” in many ways by giving veterans the help they need.
The homes might be tiny, but the support and help they provide can be invaluable.
“If you’re living in a tent on the street by yourself, with all your belongings, you’re not going to move into a shelter,” Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, told local media during Buttigieg’s visit. “You don’t want to sleep next to someone you don’t know. You’re worried about bed bugs. You’re worried about getting your stuff stolen or being assaulted. You move into a tiny house, you lock the door. You’re safe.”
There’s a lot going on here. Even if homeless persons are willing to adapt to a tiny home as opposed to living on the street, do they have the capacity or the resources to maintain the place? Are tiny homes supposed to serve as transitional housing, or long-term shelter? Do governmental grants, either federal or state, provide the basis for this kind of housing, or does it fall to poorly funded and overly stressed nonprofit organizations to carry the load?
We wish there was a concrete answer here, but there isn’t — yet. Like many of the things we cover here at Digital Trends, tiny houses are an experiment, even in their most basic form, and as a benefit to the homeless, it’s even more of an open question. We have to try, though, and it’s a start. One of the people who’s made a real difference is the actor Gary Sinise — yes, Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump — who created a foundation to build homes for veterans, including tiny homes. His mission statement has a good idea in it: We can always do a little more.