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Are tiny homes a solution to homelessness?

"Dignity Village Tour5," by Flickr user Seattle City Council/Used under CC license/Resized and cropped

Last month, San Francisco city workers cleared a large tent encampment of homeless people on Division Street.  Citing complaints about urine, feces and blocked sidewalks, the city’s Public Health Department declared the area unsafe and a public health hazard.

While the city offered places at a new shelter at Pier 80, many of the displaced tent residents simply moved their belongings to surrounding alleys where, arguably, health hazards remain an issue.

Since homeless shelters are not always a viable or desirable option for people on the street, some are proposing a novel idea: tiny homes for the homeless.

Tent Sweet Tent?

When I met Chris Thrailkilley, 22, he and his husband were living in a tent under the overpass on Division Street.  

“For now, it is what it is and I’m doing my best to keep it tidy and keep it normal as possible, keep it out of everyone’s way,” he said. 

Before living on Division, the two lived in an apartment in Novato. Thrailkillley said he worked as a makeup artist and his husband changed oil at Pennzoil. Seven months ago, problems with heroin addiction spiraled until they ended up on the streets.

The young couple sat on a mattress that took up almost the entire space. On one side of the tent was a small shelf with toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap. In another corner, a milk crate served as a paper towel dispenser. Everything seemed to be in its proper place but for a homeless person, that sense of security can be fragile: just two days before, all their stuff had been stolen.

“Literally everything you’re looking at we got in the past 48 hours,” Thrailkilley said. “Literally from picking stuff off the ground.”

The night their tent was stolen, the two wandered down alleys, found a big comforter, wrapped themselves in it and lay down. After one night out in the open, they lucked out when another homeless friend gave them an old tent.

Thrailkilley was grateful for that help, but he says sometimes involvement with others on the street can lead to unsafe situations. For example, "if one person knows that you made fifty bucks by helping out an old lady doing whatever,” he said, someone might come looking for that money.

Faced with theft, violence and unsanitary conditions, Thrailkilley and his husband are the prime demographic for tiny homes.

Tiny Home Sweet Home

Tiny homes being built for the homeless are generally under 100 square feet, about the size of a bathroom. Some are prefab, using regular building materials, and some are made from found materials like old furniture, sheet metal, and wood pallets. The tiny home idea has been embraced by middle-class Americans, like on the reality television show “Tiny House Nation.” But while people on the television show talk about “downsizing” from a big house, for someone living on the street, any structure with four walls and a door could be a real step up. 

In Sonoma County, Supervisor Shirlee Zane is piloting a project to provide transitional housing. With support from the board and public, the county approved a plan to build tiny homes in the parking lot of their administrative offices. Supervisor Zane says it’s just “one idea in a set of tools in the tool box.”

Zane’s office received more than 30 applications from developers interested in building the tiny homes through a public-private partnership. Depending on the price tag, there will be anywhere from 10 to 20 structures. 

There’s actually a model for this type of thing. A permanent tiny home settlement called Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon has been successfully housing homeless people since 2004. Sonoma’s tiny homes will be within 30 feet of the Human Services Department and nearby bus lines can get you to downtown Santa Rosa in less than 15 minutes.

Critics of the plan argue that people deserve full-sized homes. Despite this, Supevisor Zane thinks “there are plenty of people who would rather live in a tiny home than live in a tent, or live out on the streets.”

Housing First

Plenty of people I spoke with living in tents on Division agreed, but Stacey Murphy has concerns. Murphy is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Abode Services in Oakland. She has been developing housing programs for over 20 years. 

“If it’s not permanent and it’s not stable, it’s hard to see it as a long-term solution,” Murphy says. 

When looking for solutions to homelessness, there’s one critical thing to consider, Murphy says. “All of this takes place in the larger context of a fundamental lack of affordable housing, at all affordability levels.” 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition notes that between 1976 and 2002, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) budget dropped by 59%. Since 1981, it has only risen above 2% once. We have also seen a divestment from housing at the state level, most notably in the dissolution of redevelopment agencies in California. 

“At the time the U.S. government backed away from funding housing, homelessness just didn’t really exist as a problem,” Murphy says. “So they disinvested in housing and that’s a shift.”

We often think of homelessness as a local problem because “that’s where we see it, on the streets,” Murphy says. Lack of housing, though, is a national problem.

“What you see then, at the local level, are cities and jurisdictions that are scrambling,” Murphy says. 

So, is there a real and cost-effective solution to homelessness? Murphy says there is, and it’s an approach called "Housing First." Previously, it was assumed that people needed to be “ready” for housing before receiving it. The common view was people wouldn’t be ready to be housed until they were free of addiction, mental health issues, or already employed.

“What happens then is people spend a lot of time trying to manage some of the things that contribute to homelessness before they’re in housing,” Murphy says. But, “years ago a few innovative providers realized that that was not the right way to think about the problem.”

Through her early career in in AIDS advocacy, Murphy saw that although people were able to live with the disease, there were plenty of people still dying, mainly the homeless. She says that’s when it clicked: “Housing was in some ways more critical that healthcare. Housing itself is healthcare.”

It wasn’t until 1998 that San Francisco’s Department of Public Health began providing permanent housing instead of following the housing-ready model.

"They put them immediately into permanent, stable, safe, affordable housing,” Murphy says. “The results were dramatic.”

From 2002 to 2005 the number of homeless people in San Francisco dropped by 28%. But the rising costs of real estate combined with limited government funding have depleted the program. From 2005 to 2015, the number of homeless people in San Francisco rose 7%.

"I am concerned about the future of the homeless here in the Bay Area," Murphy says. "Because as we see housing prices increasingly spiral ... I don’t know where folks are going to go.”

Second by Second

After the city started clearing the tents on Division Street, Chris Thrailkilley said he didn’t know where he was going.

“I think I’m just going to go sit at a park and meditate for a minute. Clear my head and figure out exactly what direction I want to go,” he said. 

Unfortunately, this is a familiar feeling for him.

“That’s how the last 22 years of my 22 years of existence has been. It’s second by second.”

Homeless advocates like Stacey Murphy don’t want to discourage creative solutions to homelessness — but she says we already know what works: permanent, stable housing. Tiny homes or not, it’s that lack of permanent housing that keeps people like Chris Thraikilley on the street.