The Debate Over Tiny Homes: Ask Those Who Have No Home

Living on the streets is dangerous and debilitating. People’s meager belongings can be stolen; they can be assaulted. If we listen to people who are currently housed but have experienced periods of homelessness, it is clear that the effects, physical and psychological, have never left them.

Patrick and Amanda, a homeless couple in Berkeley, have found it impossible to find affordable housing. They greatly desire the option of Tiny Homes. Lydia Gans photo

 

by Lydia Gans

The biennial census of homelessness just completed by Everyone Home found that 5,269 people in Alameda County are homeless, a five percent increase in the last five years. Berkeley has 972 homeless people, and the Oakland count found 2,969.

How much time, how much money, how much land, will it take to put a roof over their heads? Cities are being forced to face the problem. More shelters and new city navigation centers are being developed — but a shelter is not a home.

We are seeing references to tiny homes appearing in newspaper articles and advertisements directed at people looking for flexible extra living space that can be located where they choose on their property. There are RV ads referred to as tiny homes that give the owners the option to live part time in different locations.

Clearly these are not for poor people.

There is also interest in designing houses that have a minimum impact on the environment. Recently, there was a contest among California college students to design and build very small, solar-powered, zero-net-energy houses.

A few of these houses are on wheels and some are currently occupied. They are still expensive, but if a number of them are grouped together and connected to common utilities, water, electricity, internet access and garbage services, the individual costs can be minimized.

This is the idea behind tiny home communities. Compared to any other form of housing, they could be a way of providing housing for many people fairly quickly. There are various tiny home communities throughout the country. Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, is an example of a functioning tiny home community.

Dignity Village started in 2000 as a tent camp that was forced to move from place to place. (A familiar story: We’re seeing the same thing happening here in Berkeley with homeless advocates setting up tent encampments, and City officials cracking down and dismantling them.)

In Portland, it took years of protest actions and negotiations until the City granted the campers a permanent site in 2004. At that point, the campers, with the help of many volunteers, proceeded to build the tiny houses and establish Dignity Village.

There are rules everyone is expected to adhere to in the village, including no drugs or alcohol, and a requirement of 10 hours a week of work in maintenance or facility operation of the village. The members have access to medical and veterinary care, counseling, education and other services.

Besides the programs and benefits offered, life in the community relieves the stress of day-to-day survival in the streets, gives time for people to sort out their lives, and enables them to establish relationships with other people.

I used to stop and talk with Latoya when she was camping on a side street in downtown Berkeley. She would tell me how she spent her days, traveling from place to place to do her laundry, take a shower, get food, look for a place to live and always stay alert for thieves. There was no time in her life to relax, to socialize with friends.

One day the expected warning came to “move off this street by tomorrow morning.” I never saw her again.

People in Berkeley who are active in services to the homeless, citizens who care, and homeless activists are urging the city to help provide funding and designate a site to establish a tiny home community. Certainly this would not come anywhere near to solving the problem of homelessness, but it can alleviate the suffering of a few people at a time.

There are, of course, many people for whom this approach would not work. There are those who resist any structure in their lives or who need solitude rather than community. There are some who choose to live outdoors.

Jimbow, who I knew some years ago, was camping out in the surrounding country, and then had an opportunity to live in a small apartment in Berkeley. It wasn’t long before he moved out. He told me he couldn’t bear looking out the window and seeing only the walls of a house next door.

My friend Mark Creekwater has lived outdoors for more than 25 years. He is houseless, he says, not homeless.

But one needs only to ask a person sleeping in a doorway, or sitting for hours on the street with no place to go, what he or she thinks about tiny houses.

I took a walk around my neighborhood on a Sunday morning. In the doorway of a store on Telegraph Avenue, Whiskey (“that’s what they call me”) and Peaches with their dog Lola are rolling up their bedding and packing up their belongings. It’s almost 9:00 a.m. and it’s time to move. On weekday mornings, people sleeping in commercial areas are rousted as early as 7:00 a.m.

I asked them what they thought of tiny homes. “If I had walls and a place to use the bathroom, I’d feel much better about life,” Whiskey says. Pointing to Peaches, he adds that it would be “much easier to take care of my friend here who’s really sick.”

 

A tiny home at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kwamba Productions

 

“I’m homeless,” Peaches tells me. She has been hospitalized several times with a serious medical condition, but when discharged, she’s back on the street. She speaks softly but her message is hard: “It’s hard, getting harder. People are acting worse because of drugs and stuff.”

Whiskey has been homeless on and off for many years. “There was a time in my life I had a nice house.” Peaches agrees when he says, “even a tiny, tiny house would be nice.”

Amanda Nichols and Patrick Rigney are sitting on a bench on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley with their packs beside them. Amanda is 46 and Patrick is 58. I talk about tiny homes and Amanda says, “I remember tiny homes.” She mentions some places and says she would like to stay in one here.

She says she’s been homeless in Berkeley for many years waiting on a housing list. Patrick interjects to explain that “she goes out and all these horrible things happen to her.” They’ve been together about 20 years and like the idea of the tiny home because, they say, living outside isn’t safe.

“There’s danger,” Patrick says about life on the street. “People are so strung out. They come and take everything. That happens all the time.” Money is a problem. They have a limited income, Patrick from SSI and Amanda from SSDI.

Up the street, a man has been sitting listlessly on a bench for quite a while. I sit down and introduce myself, telling him I’m interested in his opinion of tiny homes. He perks up. “Alton Lamont Watson,” he says. “I’m 55 and I used to be … “ — he launches into a tale of his hassles with government bureaucracy, an all-too-familiar story.

“Tiny homes,” I remind him. His attention comes back to my question. “I believe they are something that everyone should have.” He talks about the “luxurious” place he once lived in, but he ran out of money. “Tiny houses are a good idea.”

Would he move into one? “Yes,” he replies. “I’m out in the street now. I’m staying right there on Durant behind the bank. If I don’t leave early enough, they see me and complain.”

Akosua Asiedu was sweeping the sidewalk at the corner of Haste and Shattuck one morning. Her bulging packs near the concrete planters were a sign that she is homeless. I was anxious to meet her. It turns out her story is different from the others’ but there is something to be learned from it.

She has been homeless for only a few weeks. Born in Ghana 54 years ago, she was in her teens when she joined a band led by the widely popular and politically outspoken Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. She spent 11 years traveling with the group all over Europe.

“When we came here in 1990, I decided to stay here,” she tells me. She went to school, got an apartment and went to work. Then suddenly, just a few months ago, her life became a nightmare.

She went back to Ghana to attend her mother’s funeral and sublet her apartment during her absence. She returned to find her apartment in shambles. The tenant refused to leave, was abusive and ultimately became violent, sending her to the hospital.

Now she has no job and no place to live. For three weeks she’s been living outside. “I didn’t know it’s so hard to stay outside,” she says. She takes a breath. “Now the sun is coming out. When it was cold, oh, in the night, oh God.”

Tiny homes, she says, “would be very, very good. Very, very, very good.”

I got into a conversation with Anne Williams while waiting for the bus. She tells me she does hospice work and prepares food for needy people. She is 53 and is housed but is mired in financial worries. She sees tiny homes as a resource in emergencies.

“We all need them,” she says, “because we don’t know what’s happening tomorrow. At least we got a backup, we have tiny homes. (With) tiny homes we can survive. We don’t need no big old space, we don’t need all that, as long as we got somewhere we can call home.”

I met with Patricia Middleton sitting on College Avenue in Rockridge. She was sitting in her wheelchair while her husband was at the corner selling the Street Spirit newspaper. About tiny houses, she says, “I think it would be a great idea. It would create a long-term solution. Help people to get themselves together.”

Patricia and her husband both have disabilities. They went through several periods of homelessness. One time they lost everything in a fire. Recently they were evicted from their apartment when the landlord decided to no longer take Section 8 tenants. “We ended up six or seven months on the street,” she says. They have a comfortable apartment now, but she remembers, “Once you get on the streets it’s really hard to get off the streets.”

We cannot ignore the hundreds of people in our own neighborhoods with stories like these. Living on the streets is dangerous. Their meager belongings can be stolen; they can be physically attacked.

Living on the streets is expensive. Refrigerators and pantries to store food supplies that can be obtained at bargain prices are not available; free laundry and shower facilities generally require some travel. Living on the streets is debilitating. If we listen to people who are currently housed but have experienced periods of homelessness, it is clear that the effects, physical and psychological, have never left them.

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