Could tiny houses fix a huge problem?: Homeless advocates respond to Nevada County’s plan | TheUnion.com

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Could tiny houses fix a huge problem?: Homeless advocates respond to Nevada County’s plan

Nevada County plans to implement a "rapid re-housing" strategy to help reduce and prevent homelessness, said Health and Human Services Director Michael Heggarty. But homeless advocates have, well, smaller ideas.

Chuck Durrett, who owns McCamant and Durrett Architects, wants to build a tiny house village to temporarily house the county's unsheltered homeless population, a strategy that Heggarty said would be more costly and less effective than pursuing permanent housing.

Heggarty detailed the county's current strategy in an "Other Voices" column The Union published Monday, "Homelessness in Nevada County." In response, many homeless advocates said local government officials aren't working in the right direction.

Heggarty is "missing the total point," said Pauli Halstead, former manager of the Streicher House, a daytime shelter in Nevada City that closed late last month. "There isn't any housing to put people in."

Halstead is in favor of a designated free campground, or Durrett's model of a tiny house village, to shelter the rapidly-growing homeless population, which she said increased by 10 percent over the past two years, according to point-in-time counts.

Permanent housing strategy

Rapid re-housing, which Heggarty said is recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a "best practice," based off studies conducted by the department, involves "putting homeless into permanent housing as fast as possible, in a legitimate rental situation with a lease and landlord," he said. "The tenant is given limited support for three to six months, including rent subsidies, addiction counseling and mental health counseling. Those supports are offered, but they're not a precondition to the rental."

Heggarty said the most difficult part of the strategy is getting landlords on board.

"It's always difficult," he said, "because if you're a landlord and you're looking at someone working with a full-time job versus someone who's currently homeless, it's a tough choice to pick the homeless person."

The county, he said, is working on incentives for landlords who choose to house homeless people. There is currently no organized incentive system in place, but the county does provide case management for tenants who have been rapidly re-housed, crisis counseling and some guaranteed payment of rent to the landlords.

Crisis counseling, said Heggarty, involves 24/7 crisis response offered by the county for landlords experiencing problems after housing previously-homeless tenants. If a landlord calls with a concern, the county is quick to respond and help mitigate the issue.

Tiny houses

According to Heggarty, the rapid re-housing strategy is more economic and more effective at keeping people out of homelessness than temporary solutions, such as tiny house villages. There is also little evidence that tiny house villages are successful at reducing homelessness, he said, though he often hears people promoting them as an effective strategy.

"A tiny house is temporary shelter, it's not permanent. In the long run it costs more and is less effective," he said. "A place to live with no plumbing and no electricity isn't very respectful to the people we're trying to serve. You could argue that they're better than tents, but with limited resources, I still don't want to put all of our money into temporary shelter. We'd rather invest in permanent housing wherever we can. We've been very successful with it."

The county has already helped find permanent housing for 20 families and 150 people suffering from mental health challenges, all of whom had previously been homeless, according to Heggarty.

But the county, said Halstead, "has continued to tap dance around the issue that we have 370 homeless people out in the woods between Grass Valley and Nevada City and there's no safe place for them to be at night."

Durrett looks at Opportunity Village, a project in Eugene, Oregon, as an example of what he calls a successful model for getting homeless people into safer situations.

Opportunity village

Opportunity Village provides temporary housing for 30-35 homeless people at a time in small, 80 square-foot dwelling units. Residents at the village are required to pay a rent fee of $30 per month and attend weekly meetings, where community decisions are made through a democratic process. There is also a council of outside community members who meet weekly and help manage the project.

The units at Opportunity Village have no electricity or plumbing, but they have doors that lock, and residents have access to a communal space where they can cook, shower, do laundry, and use a computer.

Andrew Heben, project director for Square One Villages, a nonprofit that helped create Opportunity Village, said the village has been a huge success. The organization is now planning to build a second tiny home village in Eugene to house more of the city's large homeless population.

Opportunity Village was approved by Eugene's city council in 2012 as a one-year pilot program, and has now been reinstated twice with unanimous council votes. The city leases the property for Opportunity Village to the project developers for one dollar per year, but the city doesn't provide any funding.

The village was built entirely on community donations, said Heben. $100,000 in cash donations were collected from the community for the project, and an estimated $114,000 worth of materials and labor were donated to get the program up and running. Ongoing maintenance costs are paid for by rent fees and other donations.

"The only way we fund homeless programs, typically, is through federal and state money. But those sources don't provide much. This shows how a community can come together and utilize their existing resources," said Heben.

Eugene has also established a half-dozen "rest stops," or designated areas where up to 20 homeless people at a time can legally sleep, and is working on building a tiny house village designed for affordable permanent housing.

Bringing it home

Durrett said he's received "an immense amount of pushback from the county" when he's proposed building a tiny house village locally.

"Their conclusion is always the same," he said, "that we don't have enough money to do that, and it would be difficult to manage. But if they continue to say that every solution has problems, they're not going to do anything. We are operating out of fear instead of knowledge."

Durrett hopes Nevada County residents could help fund a village with community donations, like Eugene residents did, but he looks to the county government to step up and provide land for the project.

other strategies

Duane Strawser, vice mayor of Nevada City, said he went on a tour of five U.S. cities to get a better idea of what governments across the nation are doing to serve their homeless population.

He said the strategy employed by the city of Petaluma is the most effective method he's heard of for helping homeless. Petaluma has a high-capacity shelter that operates 24/7 and provides mental health, addiction and other counseling services.

"That's the only proven model I've seen in a lot of research," he said.

Strawser said a 24/7 shelter would be a more worthwhile investment for Nevada County than a tiny house village.

The county, according to Heggarty, plans to make that investment. They are working on expanding Hospitality House into a 24/7 shelter, as well as increasing the amount of available affordable housing, and connecting and streamlining the various groups serving the homeless population in the area.

"I'm not saying there's no place for emergency shelter," Heggarty said. "We get stuck sometimes and we certainly use things like hotels in those situations. But as an end goal we want to focus on permanent housing and skip the intermediate steps."

Durrett, however, finds intermediate steps necessary.

"When it comes to homelessness, there's only one thing to do, and that's put a roof over somebody's head," he said. "The lack of empathy is crazy."

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email mpera@theunion.com or call 530-477-4231.