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Would You Put a Tiny House for a Homeless Person in Your Backyard?

Making space can save lives.

(Photo: Ivy Acers)

Two major interstate freeways cross at the edge of the Seattle neighborhood where I live. Last autumn, as winter began to close in, the homeless encampments growing along the freeways wrapped around the hill and took root under the interstate bridge six blocks from my house.

Constructions of pallets and old furniture and blankets began to accumulate, and rubbish spread across the walkways leading to the bus stops. We commuters made our way past the campsites, heads down. Eye contact with the people living there seemed intrusive at such close quarters. On cold dark mornings, with a roaring campfire next to a public walkway, the area seemed chaotic, and maybe even dangerous.

During those daily encounters with homelessness, I often wondered — like so many others across the city and across the political spectrum — “Why doesn’t the city do something?” What people think government should do differs, and the discussion often turns to just getting rid of tent cities and the homeless. This comment from a Nextdoor website, from a discussion about a city-authorized encampment, is typical of many: “It’s always easier to say we want to give a place for these people to live when it’s not in your backyard. Crime follows the encampments.”

After several months, the city did do something. Workers came and “swept” the messy encampment at the bus stop, all the material and possessions thrown into dumpsters. Tents were also removed from the grassy slopes along the freeway, far from pedestrians. Passing one day, I saw several small bulldozers churning up the ground so that it was no longer suitable for camping. All that was left at the side of the road was mud.

But the homeless are still here in this Beacon Hill neighborhood, where old and new, prosperity and depravation live cheek by jowl. In a few square blocks around my house, there are small one-story homes built for working people in the 1940s and modern sharp-angled townhouses, where well-lit windows reveal plush sofas, big screens, and glossy kitchens. Around the corner are derelict RVs, their windows obscured with cardboard, their roofs reinforced with blue tarps to keep out the rain. People live on those streets in old cars and shelters made from pallets and salvaged furniture. Apparently streets of warehouses are where the homeless are allowed, at least for now.

With an economy powered by tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is the fastest-growing major city in the United States. It also ranks high for homelessness, third after New York and Los Angeles. That’s alarming for a midsize city where increases in density are not offsetting the rise in population — or the price of housing. At last count, there were 11,643 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and surrounding King County. Half the homeless people surveyed as part of that study reported having at least one disabling condition, such as a mental health disorder or substance abuse, evidence that the causes of the crisis are social as well as economic. Despite media discourse, furious comment threads, and evolving public policy, it seems there is no government remedy on the horizon big enough to solve homelessness in Seattle.

I had walked past the house at the end of my street countless times — it’s a pretty bungalow on the way to the bus stop — but one summer afternoon, homeowners Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum were outside holding a plant sale, and there were coffee and cookies. I was pleased to meet them — I didn’t grow up in this neighborhood or raise a child here, so I don’t know many of the residents. I suspect Kim and Dan were looking to meet more of the neighbors too, because after we chatted for a minute Kim showed me the plans for what would replace the strawberry plants she’d just uprooted: a 125-square-foot house for a homeless man. The house would be built by the BLOCK Project, a new nonprofit that aims to house the homeless in high-quality backyard cottages. The organization would build and own the houses, helping with formalities like planning permission and insurance — while homeowners would lend space for the tiny homes and welcome the new inhabitants into the neighborhood.

The tiny house in Kim and Dan’s backyard would be the first in the city. It appeared that somebody was doing something about homelessness in the neighborhood, after all.

It’s one thing to discuss homelessness as an abstraction, like that Nextdoor commenter who had a problem with giving “these people” a place to live. It’s quite another to look a homeless person in the face and reckon with their humanity. That’s why, a few years ago, Seattle architect Rex Hohlbein started taking portraits of homeless people and posting them on Facebook, with a tagline that resonated strongly with the public: the advice to “Just say hello.” And that’s also why Hohlbein and architect daughter Jenn LaFreniere recently started the BLOCK Project.

Hohlbein’s awareness of homelessness became acute when he met some homeless men on a park bench near his office. One man in particular became a good friend, and Hohlbein invited him in. Soon, his architecture office became a hub for the homeless, with some people taking shelter and others dropping off supplies and donations.

“Suddenly everything that was coming in the door was more compelling than architecture,” says Hohlbein, who left a successful 28-year career in architecture to do this new work he loves even more. He founded Facing Homelessness, a nonprofit that directly supports homeless individuals. “It’s been an insanely beautiful experience,” Hohlbein says. “Not for one minute do I regret that decision.”

The project is based on relationships — Hohlbein’s stories and photos develop out of friendship and conversation, making a bridge between homeless people and those who follow Facing Homelessness, and perhaps donate goods, money, or services. I see an example of how that works when I visit the Facing Homelessness office — in a church basement rather than an architect’s office — and meet Steve, a thin, bearded man who hugs himself as if he’s cold, even on a warm day in July. “I’m just so tired of being tired,” he says, with a gesture of despair. “I’m tired of sleeping in doorways or in churches. I need to be inside. I’m 54, and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.”

I admire a portrait of Steve on the wall — he’s slightly younger there, with shorter hair and a fashionably trimmed beard. “Well, I have something to show you,” he says, taking an envelope out of his pocket with more black-and-white photos of himself, taken by Hohlbein. All of them capture what you might not notice if you just passed Steve on the street — his gentle expression and the warmth in his eyes.

Steve says that a little over $800 would get him back into Section 8 housing — when he was evicted, he got a bill he couldn’t pay. Hohlbein and co-worker Sarah Steilen assure Steve they will request donations on Facebook and liaise with his social worker to try to get him back into housing.

Later on, I ask Steilen about the condemnation of the homeless I’ve read online or heard in meetings, especially in discussions about the location of sanctioned encampments. There often seems to be little empathy for people whose behavior is less than perfect. How do we evoke greater understanding? She reminds me that most of us have someone or something that supports us: a job, a family, or friends who help us out when we’re in trouble. “Many of the people we help don’t have anyone else who can help them,” she says, explaining the Facing Homelessness approach. “For some of them, the people they are close to have similar problems and can’t offer much support. So they need someone who will accept them as they are and try to give them what they need.”

Hohlbein sees homelessness as primarily the result of people being excluded from society and community. “The beauty of community is that we can change that now, if we turn around and love people instead of judging them, accepting them and knowing that they’re doing the best they can.

“If we’re really serious about ending homelessness, we have to be honest about what’s going on here, and that is that community’s not involved — we have completely stepped to the side and let government and nonprofits take over, hoping we’ll hear on the evening news that, finally, we’ve got a solution to end homelessness. It’s never coming, because homelessness has more to do with healthy community than it even does with providing enough shelter.”

That’s where the tiny-house-in-a-neighborhood-backyard comes in, by modeling a community solution to homelessness and allowing people to step up, to offer up some space and invite a new member into their community. And they are.

The build for what Hohlbein and my neighbors Kim and Dan are already calling “Robert’s House” begins on a Saturday morning at 7, when a crew of enthusiastic volunteers turns up to dig the foundation.

Robert’s house will be tiny as houses go. But from the area marked off with surveyor’s string, that looks like about half of Kim and Dan’s backyard. A few days ago, a team of volunteers from a real estate agency cleared away the remainder of Kim’s vegetable patch to make way for the house. In the weekends to come, side beams, pre-fabricated panels, and a roof will go up, and then the “mechanicals” — pipes, plumbing, toilet, sink, and solar panels — will be installed.

A landscape architect volunteered his firm’s services to make the most of the space that Kim, Dan, and Robert will be sharing. Robert will have a patio and garden area of his own, and the house will be finished and ready for him to move in by fall.

“Facing Homelessness wanted the first person housed through this project to be Native American,” says Kim, “in recognition of the fact that this is Native land that we’re living on. And Native Americans have one of the higher rates of homelessness.” Kim and Dan were connected to Robert through the Chief Seattle Club, which will continue to give him whatever support he needs after he moves into the house. The three spent some time in conversation to make sure their backyard-sharing arrangement would be a good fit, and took to each other immediately. “He is just the nicest man,” Kim says of Robert, “and it’s a honor to get to know him.” Robert just turned 75. He has worked all his life at a variety of jobs, including construction and fishing, and yet has been homeless for nearly 10 years, some of that on the street. He’s currently staying in a dormitory-style shelter and doesn’t want to be interviewed — he’s already had enough media attention.

When I see the site for the tiny house, I remark to Kim that it is generous of her and Dan to give up half of their backyard. “We don’t think of it that way,” she says, looking a bit embarrassed. “I think of this as something I’m doing for me. There is such a negative political atmosphere right now. This project is making me happy. When you look at the problem of homelessness, it’s so huge — but when you do one thing, you start to feel like you’re able to do more.”

Hohlbein’s work is all about that — empowering people to do one thing, and then more. He’s gathered an impressive collection of contributors for the first BLOCK Project homes — including a major construction company that has committed to building the first four houses and donating materials. That sort of help makes a difference. “With the donated labor and materials,” says Turner Construction business manager Ian Klein, “we’re building a project that would normally cost $85,000 or $90,000 for $30,000.”

Building companies are not the only volunteers. When I stop by Kim and Dan’s later in the summer to see how the house is coming along, I meet Lavrans Mathiesen, who says he volunteered because he saw a request on Facebook. A fine woodworker who runs his own business, Mathiesen lives in the neighborhood and has volunteered over five weekends — on wall framing, waterproofing and insulation, erecting panels, and today, when I meet him, on designing trim for the windows. The house is nearly finished.

Thirty households in Seattle have already volunteered their backyards to provide a permanent BLOCK Project home. “Someone compared this to Airbnb,” laughs Hohlbein, “asking people to reimagine their personal space, bringing strangers into their home to spend the night. We believe the BLOCK Project is going to do the same thing to our backyards, that we will no longer see them as our personal sanctuary. Just by being owners of a house in Seattle, we get the right to help people because we have land.”

The paradigm shift Hohlbein is working to create involves not just reassessing personal space and social responsibility, but a different sort of approach to conflict over the issue of homelessness: “Our biggest fear in the beginning was NIMBYism,” he says. “And we decided to just take it on by saying ‘Yes In My Backyard.’ We’re going to turn all the NIMBYs to YIMBYs, and we don’t want to do it in a confrontational way. All the things we’re doing are to bring community together to just bring people right into the middle of it, so that we empower them.”

Countering the NIMBYish position that equates homelessness with anti-social behavior or crime, the nonprofit is working closely with social service agencies that match tenants to homeowners and will provide ongoing support after a tenant moves in. “We also know that the BLOCK Home isn’t right for everybody,” Hohlbein says. “There are people with severe mental health issues, aggression problems, severe violent offenders, Level 3 sex offenders — it’s a small category of the homeless, but it is a category. The thing that we’re excited about is that when the BLOCK Project takes a giant chunk out of the homeless issue, we will be freeing up so many professionals to give their attention to people who really need that kind of care.”

Despite the careful liaison with social services, if even one homeowner on a block doesn’t voluntarily support the presence of a BLOCK House, it will not be built. “We do not want to take someone who is living on the street, that’s living very uncomfortably, and move them on a block only to make someone who was comfortable uncomfortable. We’re not going to be just trading comfort here.

“We believe that time is on our side, and as this project continues to move forward, more and more blocks will have it. There’s enough blocks,” Hohlbein says. “If we provide one on every block in the city, we provide more than enough housing for the unsheltered in Seattle.”

The most obvious solutions to homelessness — subsidized public housing on a large scale and free and effective health care — are probably the least likely to happen soon. Seattle’s latest plan, helping the homeless get into private market-rate apartments, may be unrealistic for low-wage workers in an expensive city. So the vision of a tiny house for the homeless on every block may be more practical than it sounds at first. Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, are looking at similar initiatives whereby homeowners would gain a backyard cottage by agreeing to rent it, for a period of years, to a homeless person. Those schemes differ from the BLOCK Project in that there would be financial gain for the homeowner.

But what they share is the idea of a small solution of generosity, scaled up, and the assumption that plenty of homeowners might be willing to house the homeless in their backyards.

One Sunday afternoon, exactly where I used to walk past the winter encampment on the way to the bus stop, I visit a community effort to address the needs of the homeless. It’s the Rainier Popup Kitchen: a long row of tables under the bridge where volunteers in aprons are preparing to serve home-cooked food to whoever comes by for a free meal. There is barbecued chicken and a delicious-looking tray of enchiladas, salad, even generous scoops of blackberry ice cream. Once a week, the Rainier Popup folks manage to feed about 150 people, and do it with warmth and hospitality. There are tables and chairs set up so that the homeless diners can eat in comfort. Checkered tablecloths flutter in the summer breeze, and there are salt and pepper shakers on every table. This looks more like a patio than a soup kitchen.

I ask if I can help out and am put to work on another row of tables, where there are clothes to give away and a big pile of brand-new socks. For the next few hours, people line up to make requests, and the other volunteers and I do our best to find what suits their needs. Some of the people I meet look like they’ve been living outdoors, but some don’t, and there are several who belie stereotypes about the homeless — there are, for example, lovely young women here looking for maternity clothes. And many of the homeless guests are gracious, giving me more thanks and appreciation than I deserve — it’s the Rainier Popup volunteers who’ve had the resourcefulness to purchase socks in bulk and set up tables and get a company to donate ice cream.

Still, it feels very good to look people in the eye and talk to them, and to go to a little trouble to find what they need: thick white socks or thin dark ones, a toothbrush, pants that might fit, and a clean T-shirt. Solving these minor problems together feels like an equalizer. At least for this afternoon, I’m working with people who are homeless, rather than being on the other side of the walkway and keeping my head down.

Not everyone has a backyard, and not everyone can make the sort of long-term commitment Kim and Dan have made to house a homeless person. Not everyone has the charisma and vision and persuasiveness that made Rex Hohlbein’s leap of faith a success when he left a high-status career to befriend people in desperate need. But their example could get more of us to change our way of thinking and to take some sort of action. During those winter months when I walked past the homeless under the bridge, wondering why the city didn’t do something, members of the community, like the Rainier Popup volunteers, like Kim and Dan and Rex, were reaching out to homeless people — and treating them like neighbors.

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