Tiny houses open big doors for Wisconsin’s homeless

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

In October 2012, we were jazzed to write about the tiny houses movement, and have been excited to watch it gain traction since then. Here’s an update about a new use for tiny houses being developed in the Midwest.

Homelessness is an unfortunate fact in our society, and one we consistently struggle to understand and address. In Madison, Wisconsin, a group called OM Build has a new take on the issue—and it happens to be tiny. Say hello to…

Tiny houses!

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Too cute! One of OM Build’s tiny houses.
(photo courtesy Lauren Wagner)

These 99-square foot houses are built cheaply and without a need for serious, specialized construction skills. OM Build is betting they’ll help address the need for homeless housing in Madison and change the conversation around homelessness in the city.

Based on a similar project in Portland, Oregon, these tiny houses (for now) must be moved every 48 hours to comply with a city ordinance. (Good thing they’re built on wheels!) OM Build—which grew out of the Occupy movement in Madison last January (OM stands for Occupy Madison)—has been working with community leaders to change laws and make a more permanent “tiny village” possible. Not only would this alleviate the burden for residents of having to literally move house every two days, it would make it easier for people to form a community of neighbors.

As Brenda Konkel of OM Build says, “We started out doing this for homeless folks, but our ultimate goal is an eco-village where there are equal amounts of people who are formerly homeless and not.”

What makes it work?

  • The houses are cheap to build (around $5,000 per unit), easy to construct, and mobile.
  • Propane tanks for heat and pole-mounted solar panels for lighting make tiny house living both more affordable and environmentally friendly than many alternatives.
  • They are super cute and colorful—downright attractive! As Brenda puts it, “People don’t like tents.”
  • People approved to live in the houses contribute sweat equity toward their future homes (see the whole application process). This gives them work experience and a bigger emotional stake in caring for their new residence.
  • The project also appeals to people who are not homeless but who want to live in a more eco-friendly way. Garnering interest from multiple sides of the community is helping OM Build to crowdsource its ideas and tasks, and gain momentum across a wide audience.

Growing OM Build

OM Build completed its first two houses in the second half of last year, and house number three is currently in the works. They’ve also established a board of directors, of which half the members are homeless. They’re meeting with public officials regularly to get help navigating some legal red tape, and their offer to purchase a property where tiny houses could be parked permanently was recently accepted.

So far, OM Build has run on roughly $30,000 in donations. With the proceeds from an online fundraising campaign planned for this year and a recently-held silent auction, they hope to up their game.

Interested?

Tiny houses offer us a new way to look at an old problem. They give us a chance to use public space in a different, helpful way, and provide a real, physical tool with which we can counter homelessness.

They also remind us that good things can come in small packages.

To learn more about OM Build’s tiny house project, visit their website, or check out their campaign on Indiegogo.

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Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis, “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

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Project Homeless Connect: Why we need more one-stop shops like this

Across the U.S., there’s no shortage of people, projects, and organizations working to address homelessness. On Idealist alone, there are over 13,000 opportunities. In the spirit of spreading good ideas, today we’re featuring a snippet about Project Homeless Connect, an all-day fair which makes resources and services more accessible to the people who could use them most. To date, it’s been replicated in 264 cities from Baltimore to Denver to Portland.

This post by Scott Keyes originally appeared on ThinkProgress, a political news and analysis website.

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Trimming hair at a Project Homeless Connect event in Chapel Hill, NC
(photo courtesy townofchapelhill on Flickr’s Creative Commons)

Say you’re homeless and you set out on Monday to run a single errand: get a discount train pass. You fork over $2 for the half-hour bus ride to get down to the San Francisco Mutual Transportation Agency office in order to apply. Another 30 minutes waiting in the lobby.

When your name is finally called, the meeting ends after two minutes because you don’t have an ID. So you hop back on the bus, out another $2, and head over to the County Clerk’s office. But because you didn’t bring a proof of residency document from a local shelter, you can’t get an ID. By this time it’s nearly 4:00 pm, the office will be closing soon, and you’re out enough money for a sandwich.

Indeed, when you don’t have a lot to spend, the path of any errand can be fraught with pitfalls.

Cris-crossing town on a bus is neither cheap nor quick. Agencies can have weird hours, and many homeless people don’t have access to the Internet to see what time they close.

What if you forgot a document? Some places won’t take you without an appointment, while others need you to come back for a follow-up next week. And even after you’ve secured an ID, a bus pass, and other bare minimums, your bag may get stolen one night, and you’ll have to repeat the entire process.

These are the mishaps that can make it extraordinarily difficult for a homeless person to satisfy a single need. And there are so many others besides: a shelter bed, a spot on the low-income housing waiting list, health care, a haircut, food. All this time spent trying to satisfy your basic needs is time not spent at work or in school.

But an innovative program from San Francisco is changing the game with a simple idea: bring all the service providers under one roof for an all-day fair.

Project Homeless Connect (PHC) began in 2004 under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. If someone doesn’t have an ID for a bus pass, she doesn’t have to schlep across town to get one and come back tomorrow, because the DMV has a booth set up at the event. She doesn’t need to sign up for an appointment with a doctor or optometrist or dentist weeks in advance; she can walk up and be seen immediately.

It’s a one-stop homeless shop, and it’s helped over 70,000 people in San Francisco alone over the last decade.

Read more about how Project Homeless Connect works here.

What other one-stop services shops do you know about? What other issues could this work for?

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Help Bethany start an art bus for homeless youth

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Bethany

In between sludging through snow banks to bring supplies to homeless camps in Utah and working at a homeless women’s shelter in Portland, Oregon, Bethany Haug took some time off to get her MFA in creative writing.

She spent two years writing poems about love, transportation, and motor homes. She also started teaching developmental writing and creative writing to young people. Put all of that together, and you can see where she might have gotten the idea for the art bus.

“Kids who are homeless and aren’t in school or have large obstacles in their lives could definitely use a creative outlet. They need to be encouraged to read and write and create. And even if you take self-expression out of it, being creative is just something positive to do with your time while you’re trying to survive,” she says.

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Bethany in Portland’s International Rose Test Garden

The intention

Bethany wants to build a traveling arts education center and zine-making bus to give homeless youth the chance to express themselves.

She understands that drop-in centers don’t always work for homeless teens and runaways, but hopes a mobile center could bring arts programming and non-traditional educational resources directly to them.

“The advantage of mobile outreach is that even though you might be affiliated with a drop-in center that has rules and obvious hours, you’re outside of that. You are stepping into their space as opposed to asking them to step into yours,” she says. “Because of that, mobile outreach has been particularly effective in reaching people who live in camps or who might be for whatever reason uncomfortable in social service buildings—especially with homeless youth who might be runaways or have come from foster care and don’t want to share their identity with authorities.”

And while the opportunity to be creative is important, the secondary purpose of the art bus would be to team up with existing homeless service organizations to connect the kids who come to her bus with other essential services and survival resources.

“Only after those needs are taken care of can someone start to think about self-expression,” she says.

She envisions the bus working in one of two ways—either as a center that moves across the country teaming up with many organizations that might not have the resources to offer arts programming, or as the mobile branch of one drop-in center in a city where there’s a lot of need.

“I live in Portland right now, and we’re lucky to have some of the best homeless youth services in the country,” she says. “But I wonder what other communities could really benefit from this.”

Obstacles

Bethany has researched some existing creative mentoring services but hasn’t reached out to any organizations just yet. While she feels confident that this is a great idea, she’s never done anything like it before and feels pretty overwhelmed.

“I don’t even know if existing agencies would take me seriously. Like, do they even care?” she says.

Some of her biggest obstacles so far include:

1. Funding. Bethany currently works full-time as a caretaker for disabled adults, but she would rather be working on the art bus. She wants to know if there’s enough money out there that she could make this her primary job, or if any existing social service or community arts organizations would hire her to run this kind of program for them.

“I’m preoccupied with having to survive right now. I have student debt and I don’t have any savings—it’s just not financially feasible for me to think about doing this full-time right now,” she says.

2. Lack of business development and budget management experience. “I don’t have any knowledge or training in this. I have nothing to compare to and no experience, so where do I start?”

3. Building partnerships. Bethany wants to run this program in tandem with other organizations but isn’t sure how to start the conversation.

“I want to approach organizations that work with homeless youth but don’t have any creative writing programming, or with literary arts or community service organizations that don’t reach out to homeless youth but would like to,” she says. “But what do I say to them? And why would they work with me if I’m basically on my own and have no experience or money?”

How you can help

  • Does this project already exist somewhere else?
  • Can you think of an organization that might benefit from a partnership with the art bus?
  • Can you connect Bethany to other organizations or programs that work in creative mentoring for homeless youth?
  • Can you offer any advice about organizational structure or funding options for a program like this?
  • Do you know of any other mobile programs Bethany could look at as a model, whether for social good or otherwise?
  • Do you have any tips for how to approach a homeless youth organization?

If you have any bright ideas for Bethany, leave them in the comments below or send her a message through Idealist. If the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Are you a practical dreamer with an idea that’s just starting to take shape? If you’d like to be a part of this series, or know someone else who would be a good fit, email celeste@idealist.org.

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Idea File: Three creative ways to address homelessness

Georgetown University and Ogilvy recently released a study about which causes Americans care about the most. Not surprisingly, unemployment/low wages are number one. But homelessness isn’t too far behind.

The other day while browsing my favorite entrepreneurship-focused site, Springwise, I came across three innovations that seemed like they could be replicated beyond their pilot cities and have a positive impact elsewhere:

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In the U.S. alone, as many as 3.5 million people make benches and streets their home in a given year.

1. Homeless-led city tours

Sock Mob’s Unseen Tours of London employs homeless guides to show you the nooks and crannies you might not ordinarily explore. Along with British history, the guides interweave their own stories and experiences from the area – surely making the tour less yawn-worthy. At the end, you can go to a pub or cafe and chat more.

Most of the profits go to the guides, and eventually Sock Mob hopes to turn all of the leadership over to them, too.

A thought: Consider letting the guides choose where to go at the end of the tour, as they may be recovering from substance dependence issues.

2. Green gym + job generator = healthier Detroit?

Recognizing that good health is just as important as a good meal, Cass Community Social Services in Detroit erected a gym in an old warehouse where homeless people can work out. The equipment ranges from treadmills to boxing bags – not to mention stationary bikes that generate electricity.

It’s the first of its kind in the U.S. And not only does the gym raise environmental awareness, but it helps create jobs. Clients pull their weight by rescuing illegally dumped tires, for example, and making mud mats out of them.

A thought: Gyms don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole exercise panorama to consider, from workout clothes to appropriate food to medical care for potential injuries.

3. Refashioned parking meters that collect donations

When parking meters are ready for retirement, what happens? Usually, they find their way to antique shops, are sold on eBay or, sometimes, are turned into bike racks. But here’s an interesting idea: piggy banks to raise money to end homelessness. Last fall the city of Montreal teamed up with a local magazine to park 70 colorful ParcoDons, or meters, around one neighborhood. Local celebrities also helped by jazzing up the change collectors. The hope is to raise $40,000 over the next three years.

It’s a win-win situation: meters get a second life, and loose coins go to a good cause.

A thought: What if people who are homeless could participate in each step of the project? Celebrities are a great way to raise the profile, but is there a way to involve others in the painting and installation of the meters?

What do you think?

Are these innovations helping the cause? Do you have more examples of successful projects where you live?

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