KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The 13 tiny houses sit in neat rows on the small plot of land in south Kansas City. There’s a comforting uniformity to the group, each structure a simple A-frame or slant roof, painted a rich hue: deep blue or dark maroon, slate gray or mustard yellow. An American flag flies outside most of the homes.
The lives inside also match. The men and women here have all served their country in uniform. And every one of them was homeless before arriving this year and being given their own address and key.
“We build communities — communities that are the beginning of a journey for those who said yes to this country and need someone to say yes back to them,” said Brandonn Mixon, an entrepreneur who helped to found the Veterans Community Project out of frustration with the usual efforts to get veterans off the streets.
Come November, the size of the “village” will double, thanks in part to a corps of volunteers and support from the city.
The endeavor here is a determined response to the seemingly intractable issue of homelessness in cities nationwide — an issue often exacerbated by an extreme shortage of affordable housing and complicated by policy debates about the use of shelters and treatment programs.
While the first of its kind in Kansas City, VCP mirrors the increasing number of tiny-house projects that nonprofit groups, churches and other organizations have been building in recent years — from Seattle to Nashville, from Austin to Detroit to Upstate New York, where 15 “Second Wind Cottages” symbolize second chances in the small town of Newfield.
These miniature abodes, which generally measure between 100 and 400 square feet, offer a mix of independence, stability and compassion on what supporters consider a critical micro level.
“If you’re living in a tent on the street by yourself, with all your belongings, you’re not going to move into a shelter,” said Sharon Lee, the founding executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute. “You don’t want to sleep next to someone you don’t know. You’re worried about bed bugs. You’re worried about getting your stuff stolen or being assaulted.
“You move into a tiny house, you lock the door. You’re safe.”
But in a country where more than half a million people experienced homelessness last year, there’s tension even among supporters over what constitutes a tiny house and how much of a macro-level solution it can try to be.
Early on, some structures were mounted on wheels specifically to avoid zoning and building code requirements. Some are still derided as little more than “sheds with beds” — lacking utilities or other basic necessities and support — and those places are the ones more likely to face pushback, if not sharp opposition, from potential neighbors as well as some advocates.
Kevin Polk, executive director of the American Tiny House Association, considers it “incredibly important that we use this resource to help the people who are most in need.” Yet he notes that housing for the homeless and transitional housing are subjects that challenge many communities.
“There is an unfortunate phenomenon in the United States, which is that what communities would really like homeless people to do is go someplace else,” he said.
In Kansas City, the Veterans Community Project tackled fears early — with a bit of help from the moon bounces and barbecues the organization hosted for anyone interested in its housing plan, as well as the tiny-home model that the VCP took on the road.
“We just went around and started engaging people, talking to them, saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. What are your concerns?’ ” said co-founder Bryan Meyer, who remembers being asked whether homeless men and women were just going to be dumped in shacks on the site.
No, he reassured VCP’s future neighbors. Still, he acknowledges that it took tangible evidence to help others fully understand the concept of the village. The model home, with new white cabinets, recessed lighting and Ikea-style beds, “broke down a lot of barriers,” he said.
Leo Morris, who is one of the newest residents, moved to the village in August after he lost his house in a fire. The 82-year-old Air Force veteran arrived with his dog, Petey, and since then has been busy making #3 his own.
“I’ve had more visitors than when I had a house,” he said last month. “They’re helping me decorate to help it seem a little bit more like me. One’s going to have a housewarming for me in a week.”
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) supports the potential of tiny houses, though a 2017 report included strong caveats that they not be separated from “the broader community” and that they be part of a “coordinated system” of temporary and permanent housing opportunities to make a sustainable difference.
Council Executive Director Matthew Doherty worries about smaller also being lesser. What often has been erected, he stresses, bears no resemblance to the tiny homes the public sees featured on HGTV shows and in blogs as a chic way to live a minimalist life.
“I just want to make sure that we’re not creating a separate standard of housing that we have somehow deemed as acceptable for people who are homeless, that we would not see as acceptable for anybody else in our community,” Doherty said.
Perhaps no corner of the country has turned to tiny houses more than the Pacific Northwest, especially the Seattle area, where such structures account for nearly 13 percent of the shelter space in which public officials have invested.
The Low Income Housing Institute manages nine tiny-home villages and has two more in progress for a mix of constituencies. Its still-controversial approach is evolving. Early on, given a 2015 emergency mandate as Seattle grappled with burgeoning tent encampments, the structures built were less than 120 square feet and were mounted on pier blocks and 4x4 skids so they could be easily moved.
The goal was speed, to get tiny structures up quickly, and to circumvent city ordinances and building code. (Seattle is being sued for alleged legal violations in issuing a permit for one of the pending projects.) The villages have communal kitchen and laundry spaces and separate bathrooms.
Lee talks about a recent callout to artists to help decorate one village’s doors and walls and praises the less-specialized volunteers who continue to support project after project.
“The community buys in,” she said. One retiree remains committed to building one tiny house a month, “and he gets all his neighbors to come.” Some people have even bought and donated tiny houses as wedding gifts.
And the effort has yielded results, according to Lee, with a 2017 city evaluation finding that those who live for a year in tiny houses have greater success at being employed and moving into permanent housing than they would have had they remained in tent encampments.
Compared with Seattle and other high-cost cities, Kansas City does not have an affordable-housing crisis. In fact, the Interagency Council last year declared that the city had “effectively ended homelessness among veterans” through the city’s participation in an Obama-era initiative.
But Mixon, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and Meyer, who served five years in the Marine Corps, kept seeing real problems among local veterans. They and their buddies started using their own money on hotel rooms for veterans rejected by shelters or other transitional housing because of previous infractions, addiction issues or ineligibility based on the extensive benefits criteria of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Surely there was a better approach, they thought.
At first, the group planned to refurbish an apartment complex or other building and provide not just transitional shelter but case management services. With the encouragement of Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, they adopted tiny homes as their model.
VCP was able to tap into a “groundswell that we never saw coming,” Meyer said, with interest and monetary contributions from Kansas City and beyond. VCP has sought no federal funding. Construction has been volunteer-driven, and contractors have discounted their work.
“I’ve never been involved in a project so full of passion and full of energy, motivation and momentum,” said Loar, who now chairs VCP’s board of directors.
The founders had expected the first 13 homes would take nine months to build. But after buying a five-acre property for $500 from the Kansas City Land Bank — an empty lot surrounded by a storage facility and apartments and duplexes — they ran hard into reality. The lot didn’t have a sewer line, and part of the group’s deal with the city in securing its blessing was that the village would be fully compliant with municipal codes and use public utilities. Adding that sewer connection set the project back one year and $1 million.
Meyer is quick to point out that although VCP is a village of tiny houses, that was not the primary motivation when the organization was created. Simply giving a homeless person a house “doesn’t fix anything,” he said.
So there’s a focus on addressing the big picture: health, financial independence, education or training, networking and support. Each applicant is evaluated for his or her needs and must be stable enough to fit into the community, where residents can live rent-free for up to 18 months as they work toward attaining permanent housing. For those with substantial addiction or psychiatric problems, VCP works with other organizations to find more suitable transitional housing and treatment programs.
Along with a 5,000-square-foot community center, the second group of tiny houses is nearly finished. A few important design changes were made on the basis of the several months that Meyer lived in unit #5 this summer as a sort of quality-control experience. (Among his observations, he realized that the air-conditioning unit needed to be repositioned for better circulation.)
The village ultimately will have 49 homes. The four co-founders think theirs is a model that can work elsewhere, and they say they have fielded inquiries from hundreds of groups in other cities. VCP also intends to replicate its own work elsewhere, with negotiations underway with officials in Nashville; Longmont, Colo., north of Boulder; and O’Fallon, Ill., a suburb of East St. Louis.
“There’s a lot of very smart, educated people that believe this is a true, viable option for homelessness,” Meyer said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re doing it justice.”
In Austin, a community offers tiny houses for the chronically homeless
AUSTIN — A new bed and pillow are typically what most excite new arrivals at the Community First Village — even though they are likely to spend the first few nights on the floor.
Years of sleeping on the street do that to a person, and some residents here have decades of hard experience.
Then they come to this collection of 240 tiny homes, RVs and canvas-sided “cottages” just outside the Austin city limits. They find streets with names such as Goodness Way and Grace & Mercy Trail, an outdoor movie theater, community garden and market, and a medical facility where health screenings are offered.
“It’s a place where you can get dignity again,” says Tracy Krause, who had long battled homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction before moving here in 2016. “It’s a place I could lay my head down and get some rest.”
Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a Christian nonprofit organization, opened the $18 million village in late 2015. Today, it’s a 27-acre, $4.8 million annual operation that the group considers a “master planned community,” albeit one that requires most prospective residents to have been chronically homeless for at least a year and to have at least “one qualifying disability.”
“We deal with the most despised outcasts,” said founder Alan Graham, who believes that homelessness is caused by a “catastrophic loss of family” and that community can mimic the safety net a family typically provides. The assistance here includes “micro-enterprise opportunities,” meaning jobs on site in gardening, woodworking, car care and more. Most outside funding comes from individuals.
Graham hopes people stay permanently, and, to date, 82 percent have. A dozen died or left, and only 15 were evicted — two for breaking the weapons ban and 13 for not paying monthly rent.
Forty-six residents are “missionals,” volunteers who exemplify good neighbors. Wendy Smith and her husband, Larry, a business executive, took on that role when they moved early on into one of the RVs. The village’s diversity is “nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” she said. “It’s such a hodgepodge of people, but we help each other — it’s safer than the neighborhoods around it.”
In September, construction began on a $20 million expansion on an adjacent tract of land. It will add 310 tiny homes, communal kitchens and bathrooms, plus work opportunities and community events.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez is an advocate. “We’re very supportive of that community,” she said of the village in the county seat, Austin. “It’s just pretty darn positive, if you ask me.”
Seattle tackles a homelessness crisis with network of tiny-house communities
SEATTLE — The first thing you notice about Whittier Heights Village is the torrent of colors — the flower basket hanging outside each home, the decorative artwork hand-painted on each door. One entryway reads: Live Love Laugh.
Constructed mostly by female volunteers, Whittier Heights is one of nine tiny-house communities in Seattle, part of the city’s response to its staggering housing crisis. It is the only location set up exclusively for homeless women, with 15 residences, each 100 square feet in size, arranged around a courtyard.
Shannon Collins was one of the first to move in, arriving in July with her cat, Blue. Though a college graduate from a wealthy family, she had lived for months under a downtown bridge after years of turbulence that included physical abuse and drug problems.
“Coming here, I felt I could start over and work to get my life back in order until I get a job again,” she said.
Homelessness in Seattle reached such a crisis in 2015 that the city declared a state of emergency. Yet in June, facing fierce pushback from major employers, the City Council reversed a $47 million-a-year “head tax” it had passed less than a month earlier to fund services for the homeless. In July, Mayor Jenny Durkan expanded emergency shelter space at City Hall to accommodate up to 160 homeless people nightly in the building’s lobby and basement through at least 2019.
Like the city’s other tiny-house communities, Whittier Heights Village is operated either exclusively or with partners by the Low Income Housing Institute, which focuses on homelessness across Washington state. The projects are considered emergency housing, but there is no real limit on how long residents may stay. Each tiny home costs about $2,500 to erect, and individuals, churches or organizations usually provide volunteer labor.
The initiative Women4Women built most of the dwellings at Whittier Heights “over 18 cold, wet miserable weekends,” recounted Alice Lockridge, who called herself the group’s Pied Piper. “We worked, we learned and taught one another and made some new friends. People talked about how different it was to work here than on their regular work crew.”
The village, which sits on city property in north Seattle, aims to be a haven for women who have faced abuse and other dangers living on city streets. It has a common area with a kitchen, bathrooms and showers.
“That first shower was like nothing you can imagine,” said Collins, 47. “We could stay as long as we wanted.”
A Detroit project’s spin on helping the homeless: Homeownership
DETROIT — In a mostly bleak expanse of northwest Detroit, on a lot bounded on one side by a freeway barrier wall, a growing collection of tiny homes offers an eye-popping contrast to the surrounding blight.
One house is canary yellow, with a bright-red front door. Another is a beige mini-Tudor with a stone chimney and steeply pitched roof. The lawns are neatly manicured, and last winter, the homes were outlined in Christmas lights — probably the first holiday decoration in this part of the city in decades.
“Little things like that are signs of new life,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services, the nonprofit entity behind Tiny Homes Detroit. “Sort of a resurrection in the neighborhood.”
The neighborhood consists of 13 homes ranging in size from 250 to 400 square feet. Plans call for 35 or more eventually, including some slightly larger models for families.
Everyone who lives here falls into the category of low income, although the community is intentionally diverse. It includes a college student who aged out of foster care, a former prisoner, and a minister who lost his church-provided housing after he developed epilepsy and could no longer preach. The ages span half a century.
“I think we do better when we’re in a mixed-up community,” said Fowler, a plain-spoken Detroit native who sleeps in a spartan room attached to her office. “Older people bring wisdom and experience, and younger people bring vision and enthusiasm.”
The two-year-old project has been funded entirely by donations, which have come from individuals and a variety of organizations. The Ford Motor Co. donated $400,000. A local youth group brought in $25,000 through a lawn-flamingo fundraiser.
Residents pay monthly rent of $1 per square foot. And after seven years, if they’ve satisfied conditions such as attending regular community meetings and volunteering eight hours monthly, they will receive the deed to their property. This homeownership model, reportedly the first of its kind in the nation, aims to both foster resident involvement and provide a long-term housing solution.
“We all try to keep everything in check,” said Gladys Ferguson, who moved into the bright-yellow house with the first wave of residents in August 2017.
Ferguson, who is 65, has been dealing with heart problems. After a recent scare, it was a neighbor who called an ambulance. Another watered her lawn and flower garden while she was hospitalized.
“I refuse to call this tiny houses,” she said. “This is tiny houses community, because we care for each other.”
As a Nashville church shelters the homeless, tiny houses provide sanctuary
NASHVILLE — The sign on the faded strip of fence reads “Sanctuary.” And just beyond it, in the shadow of downtown Nashville, is the grassy space where about two dozen people live in tents and micro-houses.
A former hospice nurse arrived here after her life was upended by a tumultuous marriage. A military veteran picks up roofing jobs whenever possible but still can’t afford a place in the overheated rental market. Clif Gaither, a two-year Sanctuary resident, works as a janitor at a downtown museum.
“We’re all pretty congenial here,” said Gaither, 47. “It takes away the stress of living on the street or at [a shelter]. You can get your mind set, focus and start to pull yourself together.”
The unusual community sits next to the Green Street Church of Christ in an industrial neighborhood on the city’s downtown southeast side. The church had been serving meals to the homeless for years but was caught off-guard when someone asked to set up camp on its property.
“We weren’t thrilled about the idea,” pastor Caleb Pickering recalled. “At the same time, we’re always trying to model Christ, so we didn’t say no, either.”
The houses were the brainchild of local interfaith leader jeff obafemi carr and contractor Dwayne Jones. Six 60-square-foot structures, built with $50,000 in private donations, arrived in August 2015. They immediately sparked a broader conversation of “tiny-home villages” as an unconventional response to the mounting homeless population, which a nonprofit outreach organization, Open Table Nashville, now estimates at more than 20,000.
Sanctuary today features 15 houses — with space for just a bed and chair in each — and a patio and fire pit built by a Boy Scout troop. A just-completed $150,000 project added restrooms, showers and a laundry room.
Another Nashville church has plans for 20 larger houses that would, by contrast, sit on actual foundations and have plumbing and electricity. That project, to be built in a more residential area, has drawn opposition and a lawsuit.
No rent is charged at Sanctuary, and no deadlines are enforced. “No drinking, no drugs and no drama” is as formal as the rules get.
“These people have made me feel very welcome,” said Craig Hunley, 57, who recently moved into a small nylon tent at Sanctuary while waiting for a tiny house to become available. “It’s my own little place. It’s something I can call my own.”
In Newfield, N.Y., one kind heart was enough to launch a rescue community
NEWFIELD, N.Y. — The view from each front door is natural, heavenly splendor. In summertime, the nearby hills are a lush green. Come fall, they burst with color. It is a place to heal, which is what the men living in the 15 tiny beige houses here hope to do.
Welcome to Second Wind, says Carmen Guidi — and second chances.
The community was born from Guidi’s ideas and religious heart. He’d been to Haiti to build an orphanage but wanted to help people close to home. For several years, he regularly took lunch, water and batteries to homeless people living in “the Jungle,” a tent town of transients in nearby Ithaca. “It’s all about relationships,” he believes.
Before long, he purchased used RVs and campers, placed them on the property where he has an auto-body shop and paid for the utility hookups and electricity. Guidi then cobbled together enough money, partnering with local religious groups, to fund, build and open the first several “cottages” in 2013.
These days, some are occupied by formerly homeless men. Other residents once lived behind bars. Some have jobs and pay a few hundred dollars as monthly rent. Most pay nothing.
“We’re not landlords. It’s a program with a sliding fee,” the 53-year-old Guidi said recently, explaining that local social service professionals often visit Second Wind to boost residents’ physical and mental well-being, work with them on diet and nutrition and improve their job-seeking skills.
Step into a Second Wind cottage. Each is a cozy and comfortable 16 by 20 feet — about the size of a New York City studio apartment — fully equipped and insulated to protect against the Finger Lakes region’s snowy, brutally cold winters.
Churches support the program. In fact, high school students from area congregations worked side by side with Second Wind residents in late summer to install windows and doors on three structures still under construction.
Scott Goodrich, who served time for embezzling funds, has lived in a cottage for two years. At 54, he’s now reassembling his life as a landscaper. He appreciates the surrounding beauty.
“What’s this view worth? This view, you can’t put a price on it,” he said. “When you’re feeling bad, it makes you feel good. It’s just unbelievable.”
If not for Second Wind, Goodrich said he probably would have fallen back into old habits. His tiny house has served a huge purpose: “It saved my life.”