Tiny Solutions Give Homes to the Homeless

Photos courtesy of Settled (John Swee / Dodge Creative Photography)

What does it take for people living on the streets to find a place to call home? The prevailing model in government and social service agencies for addressing homelessness is a “housing first” approach. Get the person out of the elements and into a safe space to live, and then you can address their many other needs such as employment and addiction treatment.

Gabrielle Crowdus, a University of Minnesota researcher on homelessness, offers a different model, which she describes as “community first.” She says that people living in a state of chronic homelessness typically end up without a place of their own to live because “they have experienced the profound and catastrophic loss of family, and that’s led to the profound and catastrophic loss of community.” Most have lived through a lifetime of severely harsh experiences leading to substance abuse, mental illness, and crime. Everyone who cared about them has given up on them, and they live amidst constant danger and rejection on the streets. Not only are they without a home, says Crowdus, they are considered outcasts, belonging nowhere.

Create the experience of home

Therefore, she says, “To see someone become home-full, or no longer homeless, they need the experience of home, and home is a place of belonging. It’s a place where you’re known, you’re wanted, you’re loved. It’s a place where you have control. It’s a place where you can grow roots. It’s a place where you can grow your own memories and relationships and trust people and be trusted.”

As evidence, Crowdus points to research studies showing that many people served by the housing first model are likely to end up homeless again within a few years. Crowdus became inspired by a program called Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, which has embraced over 500 people in need of housing with the full experience of home – tiny, sustainable houses to live in, purposeful work, and a built-in community of people that together address the most basic of human needs, including a place to belong.

Crowdus is bringing that same home-oriented model to the Twin Cities with a twist. Small settlements of tiny homes are being erected on property surrounding churches. These settlements are being organized by a non-profit, co-founded by Crowdus, called Settled.

The first of these Sacred Settlements, as they are called, consists of six moveable tiny homes, each one just a few hundred square feet in size. It is currently situated on a demonstration site at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, but two other Twin Cities churches are planning to implement this model on their own land in the very near future.

More than affordable housing

These dwellings offer much more than “affordable housing.” Each house is equipped with basic furniture and supplies plus insulation, heating, a sink, and large water holder. Restrooms with showers, water refill options, kitchen, and other common spaces are available for their use in the church building. But like the Austin-based model, which has 10,000 volunteers a year participating in its tiny home village, the local settlement will be engaging a host of people from participating churches and surrounding communities to be good neighbors to the renters.

For starters, two of the six houses will be occupied by people called missionals — individuals or families feeling a call to “love thy neighbor” in a very personal way. The other four homes will house people who have a long history of homelessness. These individuals, now living on the streets, are already well-known by the organizers of this project. They will have permanent homes for a small rental fee and be welcomed into a wider community. They also have the opportunity to work off part of their rent by cleaning the showers, helping with repairs, or doing other projects that support community life.

The settlement has no case workers or other agency services and requirements typical of programs serving people who are homeless. Renters living there will have full control of their activities and time. While having the privacy, dignity, and safety of managing their own homes and lives, they will also be invited to take part in community activities such as a Friday night movie watching party or a knitting group. They will be not pressured into attending religious events, though they may be invited. Their tiny home becomes their private, permanent place of residence.

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Befriend your neighbor

Says, Crowdus, “We have a team of what we call advocate befrienders who we train to walk alongside people like a family member.” They are not there to fix or monitor anyone, but rather “to augment that role of family and community that the chronically homeless have lost.” They might offer to go along to a medical appointment or to a court appearance to clear traffic ticket backlogs. They might assist with complex paperwork that can be daunting for people dealing with mental health, literacy, or language barriers.

The world’s sacred texts all say to care for the poor in the same way that you care for yourself“People just fall through the cracks all the time in the system, and so we put this advocate befriender team around people to help them navigate through those things,” says Crowdus. The help is offered without pressure or expectation. “The person that’s coming off the streets is the leader. It’s always about: What are their personal goals?”

The first Twin Cities settlement is only waiting for final approvals from city government to welcome the first residents. Because the homes are on wheels and will be located on church land that is already paid for, the project organizers have been able to bypass building codes and tax-related limitations, keeping costs far below what traditional affordable housing developments entail. The cost of each home is about $40,000.

Crowdus hopes that many faith communities will adopt this program on their own properties. She says, “The world’s sacred texts all say to care for the poor in the same way that you care for yourself, not just with giving them a snack pack, but with your whole heart, with your life, with your relationship.” She also points out that there are huge savings to society when chronically homeless people are no longer cycling through emergency rooms, detox centers, and jails.

Home free from addiction

Avivo, a Minnesota organization working to end homelessness, provides a robust menu of housing options and services to support a stable, safe, sober life. Lindsey Pearson, an Avivo client, started drinking when she was 16. By age 24, she was heavily into meth and sought treatment for the first time. After five more rounds of treatment, a cycle of abusive relationships, sleeping in cars and backyard tents, getting hooked on heroin, and frequent jail time, she became ready to make big changes in her life in the fall of 2020. She found both an apartment and the treatment that finally got her life turned around at Avivo.

“The counselors were amazing,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. I had to change everything, starting with my mindset.” Pearson also had to give up her using friends. “That’s what kept me stuck,” she says. But she was determined to get her life in order. Now, she says, “I actually have stability. I can wake up and have a schedule. I know what’s going to happen today. I’m safe and sober.” She says emphatically, “I’m not going back to prison.”

Pearson found a place of belonging at Avivo, with the support of staff. Pearson says she was especially grateful that her daughter could spend time with her, something not allowed during Pearson’s prior stays in treatment and prison. She is working now and looking for a permanent home for herself.

Professional services at the ready

In recent months, Avivo has created its own tiny home community, offering another way of serving people like Linda. Avivo’s 100 tiny homes are set up, side by side, within a large warehouse-like space just north of downtown Minneapolis. Like the occupants of Sacred Settlements, individuals in Avivo’s program have their own private, furnished house and a door they can lock to keep safe. Unlike the Sacred Settlements, Avivo’s tiny home community is heavily staffed by professionals who offer a wide array of personal and group support in a more formalized structure. The tiny homes are meant to be temporary, yet considerable effort is made to prepare people to live in permanent housing when they are ready. Avivo’s professionally staffed tiny home model is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

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The people living there, as those in Sacred Settlements, are not required to give up their substance abuse or enter treatment. Rather, by Avivo’s offering them housing plus an array of mental health assistance, employment help, and other supportive services, says Charles Morgan, Avivo’s Vice President of Recovery Services, “We’re saving lives or working towards saving lives, so that if people eventually want treatment, at least they’re alive to make that decision.” If Avivo clients do decide they’re ready to quit using, access to treatment is readily available through Morgan’s program.

But that may not happen for a long time. Morgan points out that someone with a bipolar disorder or a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia may have difficulty being in any kind of relationship, preferring to be alone. “It makes it hard for them to get into treatment,” he says.

Establish stability and trust

The clients need comprehensive care to get stabilized and gain trust in those who can help them“The first thing is creating a safe environment for people to be able to recover from all of the injury to the brain — the changes in chemical makeup,” says Morgan. “You can’t expect the person who’s been out there using for five years to come in and think clearly enough to make major decisions about their lives.” With histories that may include severe abuse, horrific living conditions, major psychiatric disorders, and untreated illnesses, the clients need comprehensive care to get stabilized and gain trust in those who can help them.

Says Morgan, “One of the things that we are really striving to do is use the housing that Avivo offers optimally, in such a way that we have the highest level and standards of care for those that we serve.” Morgan, previously the CEO of Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul, brings plenty of expertise to his position, having also had considerable success working among the most resistant of clients in gang-run, drug-infested neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

He asks this set-up question: “When you have people who are very difficult to form relationships with who don’t want relationships, how can you get them into treatment?” His answer: “With the right teams, I’ve seen a true tremendous recovery of mental illness, but the services have to be integrated, and I think it has to be a team approach.”

It also requires highly skilled, committed, and resilient staff. “The way I did it,” he says, “is I kept reminding myself that there’s a human being somewhere in there, and it’s my responsibility to do the best I can to get in there and find him or her. If it was me, I would want somebody to be persistent enough to want to help me, to endure whatever I’m giving them that might discourage them until they could pull me out of there and get me to be who I ought to be.”

Tiny homes, whether in church parking lots surrounded by caring neighbors or in professionally staffed home settings like Avivo’s, are giving more people a chance to achieve that outcome.

To support these organizations or for more information, visit their websites:
Avivo Village / Settled


Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writer, writing coach, and champion of creative aging. Her website is patsamples.com.

Last Updated on November 20, 2021

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