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Can a tiny house play a role in helping the homeless?

Posted April 30

The Rev. Connie Pearson-Campbell calls it a "God moment." She says divine influence put Ralph Johnson in her path last summer.

She'd been at the city offices to learn whether building codes in Bozeman, Montana, allowed for tiny homes, residences generally smaller than 400 square feet. She thought the trendy spaces could fill a gap in the city's anti-homelessness efforts.

Johnson, an architecture professor at Montana State University, was in meetings about potential student projects. A city engineer sent one of his aides to catch the Rev. Pearson-Campbell before she left the building, telling her and Johnson they might be able to help one another.

"Right then and there, the collaboration was born," said the Rev. Pearson-Campbell, a deacon at St. James Episcopal Church.

In the nine months since that chance encounter, the pair have launched a broad community effort they hope will address chronic homelessness. Along with Bozeman's Human Resource Development Council, a nonprofit that addresses homelessness in the city, they've planned and begun collecting donations for Housing First Village, a tiny-home development that will include dozens of single-occupant units, a traditional warming shelter and a resource center providing health care checkups, counseling and other social services.

"I'm getting asked on a weekly basis to speak to more groups about how they can help," the Rev. Pearson-Campbell said.

The project is popular, at least in part, because tiny homes are having a moment right now, according to organizers. Since gaining popularity on shows like HGTV's "Tiny House Hunters," they've emerged as a way to eliminate mortgage debt, generate rental income and expand a city's affordable housing options.

Tiny homes have also become a unique ministry opportunity for churches. In some cities, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Bozeman, faith communities are donating time and money to develop tiny-home neighborhoods for homeless people. Elsewhere, churches are putting these houses on their own property and creating a more direct link between their members and people in need.

The Rev. John Floberg, rector of two Episcopal churches in North Dakota, said sharing the same lot as tiny homes will deepen the impact worshippers will have on residents.

"They'll be able to feel our support," he said. Four tiny homes, which should open in August, will share the same septic system as St. James' Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, and residents will be able to use the church's kitchen and laundry machines.

Going tiny

Many city planners and environmentalists view tiny houses as an attractive alternative to traditional homes because they reduce urban sprawl, save money and take better advantage of a town's infrastructure, such as its sewer system, said Johnson, who has studied city planning in addition to architecture.

"This is a very viable option for the economies of cities and of individuals," he said.

When designed well, tiny homes are more energy-efficient than large homes, and they're easily equipped with solar panels. In addition, some tiny homes are built on wheels and readily towed, meaning they can be moved wherever they're needed or wanted.

Mobility is one reason the Rev. Floberg felt drawn to tiny homes. He thought future residents could live next to one of the churches he leads to attend college and then move their homes to help with summer camps when school is out.

"He could keep his own residence," the Rev. Floberg said. "That's one of the things that's most attractive."

The four tiny homes he's building with church members will serve young men from the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.

"One of the factors that seems to work against these guys is that they can't get into housing very easily" near Sitting Bull College, he said. "They live with grandmas and aunties," which distracts them from their studies and limits their sense of independence.

Tiny-home residents will not only be able to live on their own, but they will also have easy access to social, emotional and spiritual support, the Rev. Floberg said. He's hopeful that these 300-square-foot, mobile spaces will be a big step toward future success for the young men involved.

"We want to help prepare them to take on responsibilities in their family and in their community," he said.

Similarly, Bozeman's Housing First Village project seeks to promote a sense of pride and responsibility among the people it will serve, said Sara Savage, HRDC's housing department director. Tiny homes, more than a room in a shelter or subsidized apartment, provide residents with a feeling of ownership.

"A lot of it comes down to dignity and sustainability. Having your own four external walls can make a huge difference in building a feeling of independence," she said.

After struggling with chronic homelessness, residents will learn how to be good neighbors again, Savage said. And they will do so in an environment that's only a short walk away from meaningful resources.

"We think pairing tiny homes with supportive services, like a mini-health clinic, mental health treatment and case managers, is going to make this transformative housing, instead of transitional," she said.

Having all of those services on one lot will dramatically change the way the city currently responds to the chronically homeless, the Rev. Pearson-Campbell said. Around 150 people are homeless over the course of a year in Bozeman, a college town in southwestern Montana with more than 40,000 residents.

"We recently completed a two-year study that tried to estimate what the cost per homeless person is for law enforcement, health care bills, transportation via ambulance and other health-related services, and it came to more than $28,000 per person," she said. "We think with tiny houses, we can reduce that cost to $11,000 per person."

Tiny homes, big obstacles

Each tiny-home unit in Bozeman's Housing First Village will cost around $10,000. Johnson and his Montana State architecture students created the proposed designs over the course of the fall semester.

At an open house late last year, they showed off the final product: around 150 square feet of environmentally friendly, physically safe space.

On one side of the boxlike residence is a 20-square-foot bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink. The remainder of the space — around 130 square feet — includes a basic kitchen with a small, under-counter refrigerator, microwave and hot plate, as well as the main living area.

"One hundred twenty square feet is the minimum living space you can have to qualify as a site-built residential unit" under the building code, Johnson said, noting that his class also designed a plan for wheelchair-friendly units.

Although attendees at last year's open house, including members of Bozeman's chronically homeless community, were pleased with the initial designs, Johnson's work was far from over. Tiny homes create major headaches for builders, so Johnson and his students spent the spring semester addressing potential flaws and studying how best to comply with building codes.

"No one has done comprehensive research on this size of home," Johnson said, noting that there were plenty of problems to keep his class busy.

For example, the architects had to ensure that the tiny units could withstand a Montana winter.

"In Bozeman in January or February, and maybe even during parts of December, there will be a week when it's minus 30 degrees. If there's no one in there, how do we prevent pipes from freezing?" Johnson said.

They had to design tiny homes that would hold heat well but also allow for enough air circulation to avoid moisture problems and smells.

"In terms of health, if you use the wrong plastic in it or the wrong kinds of paints, someone could get a headache instantly in 150 square feet," he said.

And they also couldn't forget about the risk of major wind, Johnson added, noting "a strong gust of wind could overturn them."

Even when all these potential pitfalls are accounted for, tiny-home projects can still be derailed by local laws.

St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota, discovered this reality when leaders received notice from city officials that they'd be in legal trouble unless it vacated the tiny home parked on their property. The church had been allowing a formerly homeless person to live there since midsummer 2016, said Robert Feigh, who is serving as the church's legal counsel in the tiny-home case.

St. John's and Feigh sued the city, arguing that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act granted the church an exemption to the ordinances blocking its tiny home.

"If it's on church property and it's properly set back from the street, then the government doesn't get to say much," said Feigh, whose wife is a member of the church.

City officials have said they aren't opposed to tiny homes for homeless members of the community, but the situation highlights the challenge of determining how zoning and safety laws should apply to these residences.

"It's not an issue of the philosophical aspect," said Mayor Dave Kleis to the St. Cloud Times last August. "It's strictly a zoning code that all properties are treated equal on."

Feigh said he's optimistic about finding a workable solution for both parties.

"How much better is it to have someone living in this type of structure, which is very well-built and insulated, than have them outside in the Minnesota winter? There’s a way to work this out," he said.

Solving problems in Bozeman

The Rev. Pearson-Campbell acknowledged it might seem odd for churches to get involved in the tiny-home business, but she said it's part of her work as a deacon to find creative solutions.

When Bozeman residents were hungry, she suggested a soup kitchen. When recently incarcerated people struggled to start a new life once they were free, she coordinated GED tutors for the detention center.

Now, chronic homelessness is the problem, the Rev. Pearson-Campbell said. And tiny homes can help.

"The deacon's role is to bring the needs and the concerns of the world outside the church into the church and say, 'This is what the community needs,'" she said.

Standing in the Bozeman city office nine months ago, the Rev. Pearson-Campbell knew many obstacles would stand in the way of her tiny-home mission. The city engineer she met with had been friendly, but he had no checklist or plan for her.

"I was thinking, 'Well, I don't know where to go from here,'" she said.

But after she met Johnson, they formed plans that were warmly received by the HRDC. Housing First Village leaders still have to find an appropriate lot of land and raise more money, but, despite potential roadblocks, the project appears to be thriving.

"I feel like a little snowball started going downhill, and it’s a big snowball now," the Rev. Pearson-Campbell said. "I’m running as hard as I can just to keep up with it."

Johnson and his students will begin construction on the first unit on May 15 and complete it by the end of summer term. A Montana State student will then live in the tiny house during the new school year and log observations about the living conditions.

"We’ll be connecting (the tiny house) to a series of data-gathering devices so that we can monitor temperature changes in it, the quality of air, how much energy it’s consuming, water usage and moisture movement," Johnson said.

The Rev. Pearson-Campbell has already collected enough money for three or four houses, and she's meeting with many more organizations, including other local churches, in the coming weeks.

"This project will take years to completely finish, so I'm telling churches to put it in their budget now," she said. "Smaller churches can join together to pay for one."

Homelessness is a major issue of concern for the local faith community, especially after several people froze to death in the street over the course of the past year, the Rev. Pearson-Campbell said. During her presentations to other faith leaders in the community, she's speaking to people still searching for the best way to help.

Even in Bozeman, homelessness can be overwhelming, she added. She likes that tiny houses are easy to wrap your head around.

"They're manageable," she said.

Congregations will even be able to build them themselves when Johnson has the instruction manual ready, Savage noted.

"The ability for our community to actually put their hammers where their mouths are, to step up and be able to concretely contribute to the welfare of our neighbors, would strengthen the connection between our homeless population and the community at large," she said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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