Barring another last-minute snafu, Thanksgiving was Steve LeBerth’s last holiday in a tiny home.
No, these are tighter spaces. They range from 60- to 300-square-foot structures offering free shelter for thousands of homeless people like LeBerth, who lives in Seattle, which has created a national model for tiny-home communities that cities like Denver and Oakland, California, are trying to emulate.
An admitted “hard-luck” U.S. veteran who's a demolition worker and a recovering cocaine addict, LeBerth has lived in a truck and a tent encampment.
But for the past four years, he's “survived and thrived” in a tiny-home village.
LeBerth, 61, said the village he lives in, Camp Second Chance, means everything to him. He's become a respected and steady presence who's even helped build his share of tiny homes, including his own. Now, he's hoping to get in a nearby one-bedroom apartment in time for Christmas.
Choking up, LeBerth said living in the village has given him a sense of stability he'd been seeking for years.
“I can honestly say that staying in this tiny-home community has literally saved my life,” LeBerth said.
The steady rise in tiny-home construction is a temporary fix to a long-standing problem as more than a half-million people in the U.S. are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Tiny homes should be considered “transitional housing,” as long as permanent, low-cost housing is built for the homeless “as quickly as possible,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the alliance.
Creating opportunities is the objective, said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute , which has more than 600 tiny houses in 16 villages in Washington State. The nonprofit recently opened Friendship Heights Village, a tiny home village with 41 units in North Seattle where 50 homeless residents who lived in nearby tents are moving in.
In 2019, the Low Income Housing Institute was awarded a $100,000 national project grant for its efforts to help improve its community through housing. The money came from Gannett Foundation's "A Community Thrives" grant program. Gannett is the parent company of USA TODAY.
Lee said that housing institute began building tiny homes about five years ago as homelessness exploded in the area. Individuals, couples, and small families live in the 8-by-12-homes, which have insulation and electricity, and are often placed on unused private and city-owned land slated for development.
The sites in Seattle also have a communal kitchen, toilets, and a laundry area. There are site and case managers available along with around-the-clock security, Lee added.
“Once you can stop worrying about where you are going to sleep and store your stuff every night, you have the time, clarity, and assistance to make a solid plan on how are you going to get out of being homeless,” said Lee, who added that nearly 50% of Low Income Housing Institute residents are able to secure permanent housing. "Tiny houses help save lives."
Lee then rattled off cities, including Boston, Denver, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose, California, that are learning or trying to adopt housing institute's strategy to curb homelessness by building tiny homes using public and private funds.
Other cities with similar initiatives include Milwaukee, which is building a tiny-home community for homeless vets, and Los Angeles, where the city has funded nearly 40 tiny home units for the homeless on a 1-acre plot in a North Hollywood neighborhood.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he plans to commit $2 billion this year to create more housing to aid the more than 150,000 homeless people statewide.
However, not everyone wants tiny homes in their neighborhood. Some residents in Arcadia, California, an affluent LA suburb, have opposed a proposed village with 15 tiny homes, arguing that the structures will bring more homelessness and crime.
The issue has led to contentious public debates and demonstrations as the Arcadia City Council voted in June to put an indefinite hold on any tiny-homes construction.
In Seattle, Lee argues that tiny-home villages are proving to be a better option than traditional shelters because they offer separate living and sleeping spaces, and a safe place to store belongings.
During the pandemic, their strategy has been a vital alternative to homeless people packing traditional shelters, where they interact in close quarters and sleep mere inches apart, Lee said. She said that the typical cost of materials to build a tiny home is around $2,500. The labor is usually free or at minimal cost, thanks to volunteers.
The case that Lee makes for tiny houses in Seattle resonates in Oakland.
With one of the more expensive U.S. housing markets, where the median home price is $749,000 according to Realtor.com, and one of the largest homeless populations, the city is testing whether a tiny-home village can offer a bit of respite for the 65 people who began moving in recently.
The plan to shelter many of those homeless living in nearby tent encampments comes as Oakland hunts for solutions for its estimated 4,000 unhoused residents, a figure that, according to city officials, has spiked more than 80% during a four-year stretch.
An audit commissioned by Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and released in April found that the city spent $12.6 million to monitor, clean up and take down at least 140 homeless tent encampments in the past two years. The audit said those efforts taxed the city's emergency management, public works, police and fire departments. Overall, Oakland's official Encampment Management Team "lacked sufficient resources, including a budget," the audit added.
By comparison, Oakland is using $2.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to build the village and build another tiny-homes site for 40 homeless people by year's end, Bas said.
Oakland hopes its tiny-homes initiative will make a dent in assisting the homeless.
“This is an interim intervention to slow down a growing problem to get some people out of the cold and rain,” said Bas, who led the tiny-homes effort. “This is a crisis that's out of control and we need to do something.”
Called Lakeview Village, the rows of white tiny homes on wooden pallets, are on Oakland-owned land near the popular Lake Merritt. It's located where a 24-story high-rise containing 361 apartments (about one-third slated for affordable housing) is scheduled for construction. However, the project has stalled due to a lack of local developer funding, Bas said.
"There's no reason we can’t be using that site right now, " said Bas, who also spearheaded Oakland passing a COVID-19 eviction moratorium last year that other major cities adopted.
With similar amenities to the tiny-home communities in Seattle, Oakland's Lakeview Village units will have electricity and heat. The site will have potable water and flushing toilets as well. And residents will need to show their ID to a 24-hour security team in order to enter and leave.
A local housing nonprofit will operate the site. The group will provide mental health and substance abuse recovery support to residents and help them find permanent housing.
Lakeview Village will also establish a "Community Council" consisting of homeless, neighborhood and faith leaders to create a code of conduct and strengthen ties, Bas said.
Oakland also uses portable sheds called "community cabins" to house the homeless. The sheds and tiny homes are a part of Oakland's broader housing effort, which includes shelters, transitional housing, and safe RV parking spots.
Some advice from Seattle
The homeless soon moving into Oakland's tiny homes shouldn't get too settled in and get focused on finding a place, advises Tracy Williams, a part-time site manager at a Seattle tiny-homes location.
Last year, Williams, 54, a recovering crack addict, spent six months in a Low Income Housing Institute tiny-home location after she said could no longer afford the rent at her Tacoma, Washington, apartment. During that time, she became determined to get a fresh start, she said, and currently lives in one of the more than 3,000 affordable units the housing institute owns.
Williams urged the future Oakland tiny-homes residents to write out a plan, share it with a case manager, and stick with it, no matter how hard times get.
"They should take advantage of services available, but they may not have the skills to help themselves or may have too much pride admitting they need help," Williams said. "The majority of these people don’t like the way they are, you hope they can find their way to get motivated to want to live a better life."
LeBerth said he felt too at ease in his tiny-home community before deciding to find permanent housing. He was briefly heartbroken after learning he couldn't move into a new housing institute apartment but credits his case manager with finding him a one-bedroom in a retirement facility he can move into next month.
LeBerth cautiously hopes his 30-year-old twin sons will be able to visit him at his new place for Christmas. “I might not have a lot, but it will be good to have them see their dad back on his feet again,” LeBerth said.
Williams has some advice for those Oakland residents moving into their tiny homes before the holidays.
“Please, don’t get too comfortable. Remember, this is temporary,” Williams said. “Think bigger, better. This is not your 'forever home.'”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Tiny homes' help homeless find some temporary stability in big cities