Visiting a tent encampment has been a regular feature of my course on homelessness in the past. I took my winter quarter class for a first-time visit to the Nickelsville Tiny House Village at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd at 22nd and Union in Seattle.
Organized tent encampments in Seattle date back to 1988 and the numbers have grown, especially since 2000, to nine authorized encampments, primarily through the organizing efforts of SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville, in cooperation—after much foot-dragging—with the City of Seattle, as alternatives to living on the streets, in cars, or in shelters. Tiny houses are a recent innovation in these encampments. Smaller by definition than a living unit and not subject to zoning laws, they may be assembled in groups on relatively small lots.
We met with Sharon Lee, director of the Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI), and Pastor Steve Olsen of the host congregation. LIHI has been providing consultation and case management services for the Nickelsville camps. “Tiny houses are a preferred option over tents for many reasons,” says Sharon Lee. “They provide better protection, they are insulated, some have heat, light and electricity, you can lock the door and windows, and you can get a good night’s sleep without worrying about your safety. Living in a tiny house allows a person to go to work or school, and gives them the ability to keep their belongings safe and secure.” (Crosscut, Jan. 4, 2017)
The students were impressed by the tiny houses. Overall, they felt that it was a more humane and, in many ways, more hopeful way to assist people experiencing homelessness. They noted a sense of dignity among the residents, the possibilities for creating community, and the advantage of having your own space and privacy that shelters and even tents don’t provide. While acknowledging that the houses were not a replacement for having your own house or apartment, they saw it as a positive interim step as long as the problem of homelessness continues to exist. The students are hopeful that the strategy will expand, and they saw how practical it can be for themselves to become involved in organizing groups to build a house. They all agreed: “It’s a tangible way I can help!”
There is now a template whereby church, school, community, other volunteer groups can construct tiny houses for about $2,200 for materials (Tiny House Assembly Instructions). There are currently six Tiny House Villages in Seattle, and the numbers are growing. The idea is catching on nationally, and the Wall Street Journal recently published an article (April 27) on their growth in Seattle, Portland, Denver, and other cities.