Editor’s note: This story is one in a series by the Kitsap Sun looking at the problem of rising homelessness amid a shortage of affordable housing. To see other stories in the series, visit kitsapsun.com.
Kelly Lyons bends to pluck a sprig of mint from the planter in front of the small wooden structure she calls home, for now.
It’s late summer. Lyons, homeless for three-and-a-half years, hopes to be in an apartment by winter. The prospects are not good.
At 8-feet-by-12-feet, Lyons’ cottage is about the size of a tool storage shed. It snugly houses her possessions: a two-sided wall quilt that she flips depending on if she needs to cheer up or calm down, her teddy bear collection (she never had one growing up and people began giving them to her after she became homeless), her tea cups and saucers. She enjoys sipping tea, a calming ritual amid the strife and exhaustion of being without a permanent home.
Lyons, 52, pops the mint leaf in her mouth, savoring the flavor. She moves with difficulty, sometimes using a cane. In her planter are bright red geraniums, basil, oregano and lemon thyme. Hers is one of 14 tiny homes in two neat rows on a lot in Seattle’s Central District. Each has its own grace notes of individuality: small statuary, a Texas flag, a wheelchair parked outside.
Tiny House Village, as it’s called, is on property owned by a nearby church and operated by a team of nonprofits. It’s part of a movement in Seattle that offers people like Lyons a foothold of stability in semi-permanent structures, either tiny houses or tents on platforms off the ground.
The city of Seattle has six sanctioned encampments on public properties. Unlike unsanctioned camps of people who are homeless, tiny house/tent communities feature shared spaces for bathing and cooking. Residents share chores and keep each other accountable to rules of the camp. And they receive regular case management.
Kitsap County officials hope to replicate the tiny house model with villages of up to 12 houses, one in each of the three commissioner districts. South Kitsap Commissioner Charlotte Garrido is leading the charge, working with social service providers, nonprofits and businesses under the banner of the group Homes for All.
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Members have visited tiny house encampments in Seattle and Olympia. Nonprofits, churches and schools jumped in to built the watertight cottages, with 11 completed to date. The county had six possible locations in parcels it owns in South Kitsap. But the plan hit a snag in July when neighbors of one parcel in Port Orchard pushed back against the proposal.
Now, after more than a year of planning, Garrido recently announced the county has plans to lease a one-acre site on Bethel Road that property owners have offered as a tiny house village. Garrido hopes the site will be up and running by early 2018.
The site will be the county’s pilot for the tiny house concept (the Suquamish Tribe launched one this year). Given that Homes for All will follow Seattle’s model, here’s roughly what residents and neighbors of a tiny house village can expect.
Life in the village
Lyons, 52, has homesteaded in Alaska. She’s worked construction and run her own business. A back injury several years ago and other health issues disrupted her life and drained her finances.
Homesteading helped prepare Lyons for life on the streets. She prefers a tent over homeless shelters, many of which require residents to leave during the day.
Tiny House Village opened in 2016. Lyons moved in November 2016. Here, she has her own space albeit small, and it’s a short walk to the bathroom and shower facility.
The Seattle tiny houses are similar in design but painted in an array of colors, evidence they were built by various organizations. In Kitsap County, groups and businesses were eager to combat homelessness by donating materials or labor to build the homes. The harder piece — one echoed by city of Seattle officials — was finding a suitable property.
And let’s be perfectly clear, tiny houses are not equivalent to a real home. We’re not talking upscale tiny houses, part a of a separate trend. These are watertight sheds. Depending on the layout, they can house a family of four. It’s certainly a step up from sleeping in a car, breezeway or — in the middle of winter — a tent. But they are not meant to be anyone’s permanent home, homeless advocates say.
Lyon’s house has a small window and not much natural light. In summer, she opens the door for ventilation. Come winter, she will be grateful Tiny House Village homes have electricity and heat, now standard in tiny house villages built after 2016.
Lyons has a shoebox-sized portion of the communal fridge in the cooking tent. Residents work around each other to share the burner stove and microwave. Lyons says it’s hard to prepare nutritious meals given space and time constraints.
Church and community members donate meals and snacks. Lyons is grateful for their generosity. She tries to steer clear of the doughnuts. She knows she needs more fruit and vegetables. She hopes to do better when she moves into her own apartment, someday.
Lyons is working to get disability and job re-training. Progress is slow. A trip by bus to the library to fill out an application can take most of a day. The daily quest for food and medical care can be daunting. Two of her neighbors are on dialysis.
“We often work as many hours as other people,” she said. “Survival is what you spend most of your time on.”
The self-management model
The village is self-governing, with oversight from social service agencies, Lyons explained. Residents must adhere to a long list of rules, including no alcohol or drugs on the premises. There are background checks. The village is fenced. ID is required for entry.
Everyone has a job: cleaning, sorting donations, doing security or serving in leadership roles. Residents earn required “participation credits” each week for community involvement, such as connecting with sponsoring church members or attending city council meetings.
“I like the self-management style because you get to give back,” Lyons said. “We do put in a lot of sweat equity.”
Residents meet regularly and elect a triumvirate to govern the camp. Leaders organize work schedules, network with agencies, neighborhood groups and the host church, and they settle disputes among residents.
The disputes are what you might expect from a random group of people thrown together: complaints of others being noisy after hours, friction over shared spaces. Serious infractions result in probation. There is zero tolerance for stealing. Residents have the back-up of managers and law enforcement as needed to trespass offenders.
Residents come with a range of needs and barriers to re-housing. “We aren’t really qualified to do mental health issues, but we do have to do that sometimes,” Lyons says.
Residents do “litter patrol” and neighborhood safety walks. “We take care of ourselves, and we try to take care of our neighbors,” Lyons said. “We’re not helpless. We just need help.“
Seattle’s tiny house history
The idea of building small, low-cost structures for the homeless has gained traction in recent years around the country. In Seattle, structures of 120 square feet or less don’t require a building permit, so that’s become the standard.
“It allows us to move very quickly on implementing tiny houses as a solution,” said Brad Gerber of the Low-Income Housing Institute (LEHI), one of the lead agencies in the city’s tiny house movement.
Across the street from Lyons’ home, a tall crane works on yet another new building. Seattle’s economic boom has fostered a construction frenzy and brought with it a dearth of affordable housing. Average rent in 2016 was $2,790 according to a report by LEHI.
From 2015 to 2016, King County saw a 19 percent increase in homelessness, with 4,505 lacking shelter in the January 2016 homeless count.
Kitsap County’s January 2017 Point in Time homeless count showed 165 people living “in places not fit for human habitation,” in cars, abandoned buildings or outside. The county likely misses an unknown number of unsheltered homeless.
The city of Seattle in 2015 declared a state of emergency to address homelessness. As part of the response, the city partnered with nonprofits and faith organizations to create semi-permanent encampments of tents and tiny homes on public land.
In the past, the city allowed encampments on church properties for up to 90 days. But each move meant residents had to abandon any progress with service providers and start from scratch with an agency closer to the new location. The city’s permitted encampments (including those it helps operate) now are allowed to stay in place for one year, with a second-year option based on successful operation.
City officials are revisiting whether to allow sanctioned camps for more than two years, said George Scarola, hired by the city of Seattle in 2016 as director of homelessness.
Three encampments on public land, averaging 50 to 60 residents, were established in 2015, with three more in 2017. Seattle is the first city in the country to offer public land and funding to support permitted encampments for people experiencing homelessness, said city spokesman Will Lemke.
Among the city’s camps, Licton Springs is a low-barrier encampment, where residents aren’t barred from being high or intoxicated on the premises.
Tiny House Village, on church land, is more the size of camps proposed in Kitsap County.
Lyons formerly lived in a tent in South Seattle’s Othello Village, one of the city-sanctioned camps. Because of her health issues, Lyons needed “something more secure than a tent.”
Signs of success
Since Jan. 1, 2017, Seattle’s sanctioned encampments have served 600 individuals. A 2016 report to the City Council documented 87 people who were able to move out of the camps to more permanent housing.
That may not seem like much compared with the 4,500 people in Seattle living outdoors, Gerber said, but it’s a start. The wait list for city-sanctioned camps runs around 350.
“At this point, we are not able to solve the problem, but we’re making a contribution. We’re trying not to be pessimistic,” Gerber said. “It is not a panacea, but when you look at this in comparison with other solutions, this begins to look like a lot more dignified and cost-effective solution.”
The city has been disbanding unsanctioned camps, with outreach teams directing residents to tiny house villages and other shelters. The practice is controversial and some say ineffective.
“They just move from one place to another with huge cost to the city, and unfortunately, it’s a very expensive game of whack-a-mole, and we take an advocacy position against that,” Gerber said.
Lemke on behalf of the city counters that the unsanctioned camps are inhumane. “We’re getting people out of incredibly dangerous and hazardous living spaces where they could be much better supported,” he said.
The city and LEHI are in agreement on the value of sanctioned camps. “It’s a far more humane and better method of moving people into housing,” Gerber said.
Kitsap County has mapped unsanctioned camps throughout the county, with a number in East Bremerton. The county has taken no stance on unsanctioned camps, but private property owners periodically take steps to evict squatters.
Among those served in Seattle’s sanctioned camps, 40 percent were deemed “chronically homeless” before placement.
Garrido has said Kitsap County won’t begin by tackling the hardest cases. “At first, at least, we’re looking at low-risk residents,” Garrido said. “People who are just down on their luck and just need an opportunity to get some case management and put together their own plan for self-sufficiency.”
Garrido wants the South Kitsap tiny house village to be a model of success that inspires the movement to grow. “We’re looking for a low-risk example of how this could work,” she said. “I think it’s one step at a time.”
Seattle’s outreach teams, working the streets and unsanctioned camps, didn’t intentionally start with the easy cases, Scarola said, but with less entrenched issues, they were more quickly placed. With time and patience, outreach workers have placed some of the tougher cases. “At this point though, after more than a year of work, the populations in unsanctioned encampments are harder to place,” Scarola said.
LEHI provides case management for city-sanctioned encampments, a key to the model’s success, Scarola said. Two nonprofits with decades of experience in church-hosted camps — SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville —provide site management.
“They have become very skilled at charging residents with a high degree of self-management,” Scarola said. “They have learned how to not only do that well in any one camp, but bring that to a new encampment.”
In Kitsap County, the proposal is for Kitsap Community Resources to provide case management and Housing Kitsap to do site management. KCR, working with a network of other social services, oversees Kitsap County’s Housing Solutions Center, a one-stop referral service for people who have lost their home or are at risk. Households served in 2016 totaled 2,806.
Not in my backyard
The 2016 report on Seattle’s sanctioned camps indicated there was no significant increase in crime in neighborhoods where they were located, although that has been a concern among the camps’ neighbors in Seattle and Kitsap.
Lyons served on a panel of people who spoke to neighbors of the Georgetown city-sanctioned camp before it was established in 2017. Having the homeless represented during community outreach is critical to mitigating fear and resistance, she said.
“When we get to do it and there’s people who get to volunteer and do the speaking, we get to actually answer the questions,” Lyons said. “They get to meet us. It’s surprising how many people actually change their mind before the meeting starts just because we mingle and talk. … A lot of them end up being more supportive because we are indeed working for ourselves, not just waiting for it.”
Resistance to the camps ebbed with the second wave.
“When we did the first one, there was a lot of alarm and concern and fear and anger,” Scarola said. “Now, in general, communities say, ‘We can make this work. Here are some of our concerns …’ because of our successful management of the first three.”
“I think we’ve learned to engage with the community as early as possible,” Gerber said, in hindsight. “We’ve certainly learned things, like listening to the residents. … Asking folks living there what they need is important. It’s their home.”
Each camp has a community advisory committee, of neighbors, business owners, sponsoring church members and other stakeholders to address concerns as they crop up.
Garrido said that now that a possible site has been located, she plans to call neighbors to talk to them in person and follow up with public meetings. “It’s our responsibility to reach out to neighbors,” she said.
Land and money
Land availability was and is the biggest hurdle to establishing a tiny house village, Scarola said. It has to be near public transit and services, groceries and laundry facilities.
In Kitsap, some of the barriers to siting on the county-owned properties included lack of transit access, the presence of unbuildable wetlands and, in one case, the proximity of a bar.
Seattle’s camps are financed with public and private money. The city allocated $1.5 million for sanctioned encampments in 2017. An increase to $1.75 million is planned for 2018. LEHI supplements funding and funnels private donations of time, money and materials to the camps. The average cost to set up and operate a two-year camp is more than half a million dollars.
Garrido says there is money in the county’s budget for a South Kitsap tiny home village. “We will be able to allocate some funding,” she said. “I haven’t talked to the other commissioners yet.”
Garrido in July hoped the tiny home camp would be open before the weather turned. The county must still complete site permitting, informal and formal outreach to neighbors, and the purchase and outfitting of kitchen and bath facilities. She’d like to see the latest proposal come to fruition before year’s end, but early 2018 is probably more realistic, she said.
“Obviously, I’d like to take care of the problem yesterday, but that’s not how this type of situation works,” she said.