Can the “tiny house movement” mitigate rising homeless populations in America’s most populous cities? While homes less than 500 square feet have become a fad for lots of people looking to live more simply, shrink their environmental footprint and lessen their financial burdens, governments and social service organizations have also taken notice of its potential for rehabilitating people experiencing homelessness nationwide.
In 2001, the City of Portland, Oregon, became one of the first to turn tent encampments into semi-permanent housing with Dignity Village. The community houses up to 60 people per night and, constructed with mostly recycled and reclaimed materials, has an incredibly low environmental impact. Unlike most homeless shelters, Dignity Village gives residents the ability to decide who lives with them and couples and pets are not forced to split up. Residents can live in the village for up to two years with extensions granted to individuals working in leadership positions within the village and those taking active steps to transition out of homelessness. Dignity Village is the longest existing, continually operating, city-sanctioned tiny home village for the homeless in the United States, and many other cities are hoping to duplicate their efforts.
The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) is expanding Portland’s model to Washington State. Seattle currently has five tiny house sites serving over 200 people, and unlike Dignity Village which only offers porta-potties, Seattle’s tiny house villages have a central building with flush toilets. Residents struggling with substance abuse issues are not required to be sober in order to be eligible for housing, although they do have to commit to good behavior and to complete community chores. Through the Tiny Homes Initiative, LIHI has helped 106 people find gainful employment with the assistance of case managers and has reunited 34 people with family and friends.
There’s little doubt that tiny homes are an improvement over tent cities, but many question their long-term effectiveness. One reason that tiny homes are so affordable and easy to build is that they aren’t held to the same standards as typical dwelling units categorized under the International Building Code. Most lack electricity and running water, and some worry that they will eventually turn into shantytowns. Barbara Poppe, who coordinated federal homelessness policy for most of Barack Obama’s presidency, believes that such basic accommodations further stigmatize the homeless and that related funding should be used to develop permanent affordable housing instead. Advocates for tiny home villages argue that such housing is still preferable to sleeping on the streets, and offers more privacy than typical shelters.
Tiny homes emerged out of necessity as a temporary solution to a dire problem, but their long-term impact on reducing homelessness remains to be seen. Although tiny homes might seem modest to some, to others they represent a much-needed second chance.