How the tiny home movement is giving homeless people more than just a roof

MADISON, Wisconsin – Tucked away in a residential neighborhood surrounded by a wooden fence and lots of greenery are nine small houses. With multicolored panels and roofs, they look like human-sized birdhouses. And they fit right in.

So does Gene Cox, 48. He hasn’t been homeless in more than seven years. That’s the point of this little development.

“That’s the longest time I’ve stayed in one place,” said Cox, who was sipping coffee and a cigarette outside his tiny home after working the second shift as a benefits administrator. “I’m very nomadic. I’ve moved a lot in Wisconsin over the past 22 years.”

After Cox divorced in 2009, he hopped through rented apartments before living in his van for a year. He tried a local men’s home. He only lasted two nights.

Then, in 2014, he heard about Occupy Madison, an offshoot of the national movement against income inequality that was planning this community. Cox began helping with gardening, one of his passions. A few months later, he moved into one of the 99-square-foot homes (reflecting the “99%” of the population Occupy wanted to represent).

With housing costs rising, tiny houses are spreading as a solution to homelessness in California, Indiana, Missouri, Oregon and beyond. Arnold Schwarzenegger garnered attention in December when he donated money to build 25 tiny homes for homeless veterans in Los Angeles. It reflects a growing interest in unconventional ideas to get homeless people off the streets, particularly in winter in cold climates and amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Anything that increases the supply of affordable housing is a good thing,” said Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We have an enormous housing shortage – around 7 million fewer affordable housing units than households that need them.”

Housing and health are inextricably linked. In a 2019 study of 64,000 homeless people, people living on the streets were more likely to report chronic health problems, trauma, substance abuse and mental health issues than those with temporary shelter.

But not all small houses are the same. They range from cottages with a cot and heating to miniature houses with a kitchen and bathroom.

The communities themselves are also different. Some are just “agency-managed shelters that use pods instead of the traditional gymnasium full of bunk beds,” said Victory LaFara, program specialist at Dignity Village, a tiny-home camp in Portland, Oregon, that’s been open since 2000. Some are self-managed, like Dignity Village and Occupy Madison, and some offer a route to tiny home ownership.

However, many are in remote parts of the city — far from jobs, grocery stores, and social services. “There’s a balance between the benefits you get from an improved structure and the negative factors you might get from a worse location,” said Luis Quintero, a housing researcher at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he thinks tiny homes are a good emergency option to protect people from the elements and violence, but not long-term solutions like increasing the number of residential paid jobs , the housing stock and the financing of housing vouchers.

“Since the ’70s, there’s been this issue that there are some people in society who don’t deserve it,” he said. “And the tiny home kind of fits into that mindset.”

Zoning regulations and building codes have prevented small home construction in some cities, as have concerned neighbors. According to village organizers, this resistance often fades once communities are up and running. “Since we were in Community First! Village six years ago, there were no documented crimes by anyone on this property in any of the adjacent neighborhoods,” said Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a homeless assistance group in Austin, Texas that operates the nation’s largest tiny-home project.

In an industrial estate on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, a city-owned tiny community for the homeless opened in November 2021. (Giles Bruce for KHN)

The white 2.40 x 2.40 meter prefabricated shelters can accommodate a cot, a fridge and some personal items. (Giles Bruce for KHN)

In Madison, which has a population of approximately 270,000 and is home to Wisconsin’s Capitol and flagship university, three different types of small houses are on display at three locations.

Occupy Madison’s newest village opened in late 2020 about a mile north of its original location. A gated parking lot is lined with a shuttered bar and 26 Conestoga huts, resembling old west wagons. The 60-square-meter temporary structures will eventually be replaced with tiny houses that residents are expected to help build.

On the outskirts of town, in an industrial estate near a freeway, the city’s new tiny home project features parallel rows of 8-by-8-foot white prefabricated shelters designed to look like ice-fishing shacks. Unlike the two Occupy settlements, this one has one full-time position, including a social worker and an addiction counselor; The other day, residents were flocking in and out of the cramped office, either to make a phone call or grab a muffin or some cookies. People were walking their dogs outside.

The 30 residents previously lived in tents in busy Reindahl Park in Madison.

“The city has solved a political problem first and foremost,” said Brenda Konkel, president of Occupy Madison and executive director of Madison Area Care for the Homeless OneHealth. The so-called sheltered camp will cost about $1 million to set up and will cost about $800,000 to $900,000 per year to operate.

A state-owned Tiny Home Village on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin for people affected by homelessness has full-time staff including a social worker and an addiction counselor. Though staff say the location — away from job opportunities, grocery stores, and health care providers — isn’t ideal, they note the people who live there are growing. (Giles Bruce for KHN)

Jim O’Keefe, director of urban development, said housing people in traditional shelters is significantly cheaper in the short term. But tiny home villages can often serve those who are either unwilling or unable to stay in a community because they have pets or partners, have severe emotional or psychological issues, or are excluded from the shelter system.

“Anyone who spent time in Reindahl understood how unsafe and unsustainable it was for the people who lived there,” O’Keefe said.

Sara Allee-Jatta, clinical director of Kabba Recovery Services, said residents’ drug use had increased since arriving at the city-run compound, perhaps because they finally had warmth and didn’t have to worry about the safety of their belongings. She hopes their newfound calm will also give them the space to recover when they’re ready.

For Jay Gonstead, a lifelong Madisonian who moved to the camp after it opened in November, the location was a godsend. After a divorce, he lived in the tent city for seven months.

“It got really bad at the end. I never in my life thought I would have to shoot Narcan into someone, but I did,” he said, referring to the treatment that reverses opioid overdoses. “I witnessed a man being shot. I witnessed stabbings. That was not a good place.”

The 54-year-old regularly rides his bike to look for work. “I have a criminal history. I’m an alcoholic,” he said. “That makes it difficult.”

But he’s noticed smiles on his neighbors’ faces for the first time in his memory. Electricity and hot showers — along with a sense of community — tend to have that effect, he said.

“If you have a roof and a lockable door, that’s a home,” he said, fighting back tears. “We’re not homeless.”

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