Small homes, big dreams: This is how activists are reinventing shelter for the homeless

Nine little houses are hidden in a Madison neighborhood, surrounded by greenery and a wooden fence. They look like small birdhouses with multicolored roofs and siding. They fit in perfectly.

Small homes, big dreams: This is how activists are reinventing shelter for the homeless

So does Gene Cox, 48. In seven years, he has not been homeless. This is the main point of this small development.

Cox said, "This is my longest stay in one place." He was consuming coffee and smoking outside his home as a benefits administrator after his second shift. "I am very mobile. "I've been moving around Wisconsin for 22 years."

Cox divorced in 2009. He lived in a variety of rentals until settling down in his van. He tried the local men's shelter. He lasted for only two nights.

In 2014, Cox heard about the Occupy Madison community, which was a spinoff from the national movement against income inequality. Cox began helping with his passion for gardening. He moved in to one of the 99-square-foot houses a few months later (representing the "99%" of Occupy's target population).

Tiny homes are becoming more popular as a solution for homelessness in California and Indiana, Missouri, Oregon, and elsewhere. Arnold Schwarzenegger received a lot of attention in December when he donated funds for 25 tiny homes for homeless vets in Los Angeles. This is a sign of a growing interest outside the box in ways to house homeless people, particularly in winter and during the covid-19 pandemic.

"Anything that increases affordable housing supply is a good idea," stated Nan Roman CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "We have a great shortage of housing -- approximately 7 million more affordable housing units than the number of households who need them."

Housing and health are closely linked. A 2019 study found that people who live on the streets are more likely to have chronic conditions, abuse of substances, and mental disorders than those who live temporarily in shelters.

However, not all tiny houses are equal. These range from tiny houses with bathrooms and kitchens to cabins with heaters and a heater.

They also differ in their communities. Some communities are simply "agency-managed shelters which use pods instead the traditional gymnasium filled with bunk beds," Victory LaFara, program specialist at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, said.

Some are self-governing, such as Occupy Madison and Dignity Village, while others offer a path towards tiny home ownership.

Although many live in rural areas, they are often far from employment, grocery stores and social services. "There is a balance between what you get from the better structure and the negative factors that you might get from being located in a poorer area," stated Luis Quintero a housing researcher at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Donald Whitehead Jr. is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. He said that tiny homes can be a great emergency solution, to protect people against the elements, but they are not long-term solutions like funding for housing vouchers, increasing the number of jobs with living wages, or increasing the housing stock.

He said, "There has been a theme since the 1970s that there are people in society who are less deserving." "And the tiny house kind of fits in that mindset."

Concerned neighbors have also prevented the construction of tiny homes in certain cities due to building codes and zoning regulations. Village organizers say that opposition to the construction of small communities often disappears once they are established.

"Since our move into Community First! Village six years ago, there were no reported crimes on this property in any adjacent neighborhoods," Amber Fogarty, President of Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin, Texas. They operate the largest tiny-home development in the country.

Madison is home to approximately 270,000 people and has three types of tiny homes. It has three locations.

Occupy Madison's new village was built in the late 2020s, about one mile from its original location. A fenced parking lot is surrounded by 26 Conestoga Huts that look like old West covered wagons. These temporary structures measuring 60 feet by 60 feet will eventually be replaced with tiny homes, which their occupants will build.

The city's tiny-home project is located in an industrial area near the interstate. It features rows of prefabricated shelters measuring 8 by 8 feet that look like ice fishing sheds. This Occupy settlement has a full-time staff. Residents streamed in and around the cramped office to grab muffins or cookies, and this is unlike the other Occupy settlements. Many people walked their dogs outside.

These 30 residents were previously living in tents in Madison’s bustling Reindahl park.

Brenda Konkel, president and executive director of Madison Area Care for the homeless OneHealth, stated that "the city was solving an economic problem, first and foremost." It cost $1 million to establish the so-called sheltered campment and will cost $800,000 to $900,000.

Jim O'Keefe City Community Development Director stated that housing people in traditional shelters would be much more affordable in the short-term. Tiny-home villages are often able to serve people who cannot or will not live in a shelter because of their pets, partners, severe emotional or psychological problems, or are exempt from the shelter system.

O'Keefe stated that anyone who spent time at Reindahl knew how dangerous and unsustainable it was for those who stayed there.

Sara AlleeJatta is the clinical director at Kabba Recovery Services. She said that residents' substance abuse has increased since they arrived at this city-run facility. Perhaps because they have warmth and don't have to worry so much about their belongings. She hopes that their newfound peace will allow them to heal when it's time.

Jay Gonstead, a Madisonian for over 40 years, moved to the camp in November after it opened. It has been a blessing. He lived in the tent city seven months after a divorce.

It got really bad towards the end. He said that he never imagined that he would have to shoot Narcan into someone. "I saw a man being shot. I saw stabbings. It was not a good environment.

The 54-year old sets out regularly on his bicycle to search for work. "I have a criminal record. He said that he was an alcoholic. It makes it difficult.

He noticed the smiles on the faces of his neighbors for first time in his life. He said that electricity and hot showers, along with a sense community, tend to have this effect.

He cried, "When you have a roof and a lockable door, that's home." "We are not homeless."

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