Reinette Senum thought the idea to build tiny, portable homes for the homeless might seem crazy to some, but the former mayor and councillor of Nevada City, California was willing to “look like a fool” to find ways to help her community’s marginalized members.
About two years ago, a homeless shelter in Nevada City – population 3,100 – shut its doors for the summer months in order to save money, leaving about 40 people with no place to go.
Senum had the idea to build temporary mobile shelters to help keep those people out of the elements. She said although her community is small, the impact of homelessness was felt strongly, and no one wanted to see more people out on the streets. Senum brought her idea to the board of directors at the homeless shelter to see if they thought it would work.
It was 15 days after she pitched the idea that they were able to raise $7,000 and find a group of about 100 volunteers to build the shelters. It took about two days to complete all the units, which were then moved to a lumber yard for storage before they were given to the homeless.
Some of the homeless initially had concerns about using the mobile shelters, as they felt they would be targeted by police. Senum said they found a person to try one as a pilot project, and after a month they were giving out two to three each month as people became familiar with them.
Out of the 40 shelters, about 24 are still in use and occupied by the original tenants. Senum said when a person no longer uses their shelter, they generally discard of it.
Community members in Abbotsford took inspiration from Senum’s project and have started building micro-homes for the homeless locally.
Members of the 5 and 2 Ministries and members of the Fraser Valley Atheist, Skeptics and Humanists (FVASH) group, came together to start a pilot project in Abbotsford.
When Jeff Gruban, a member of FVASH, started thinking of different ways to build the shelters, he scoured the Internet for ideas and went down to the homeless camps to ask people what they would like in a home.
“I was talking to the folks down there, and they kept mentioning portability.”
He said that it made sense for there to be wheels on the homes in case homeless people need to “hit the road.”
He said the Nevada City project “really what serves as the inspiration for the design we have now.”
Some concerns have been raised over the safety of the small structures, including the risk of fires, but Gruban said it is safer than many homeless people’s current situations.
“You have to remember their current situation, which is a nylon tent. Very often they try to warm that with a candle. Imagine how safe that is, going to sleep in a nylon tent with a candle.”
He added that the structures would take much longer to ignite than a tent and he has put in a candle holder for safety. Gruban said they aren’t basing the initiative on “extensive years of research,” but simply using ideas from other communities to see how it works here.
Senum said that at first people were skeptical of her plan, comparing the homes to chicken coops or coffins, “but when you’re living in a tent or under tarps in these wet conditions – it destroys everything, the clothes that are on you, your shoes… sleeping bags, blankets, everything.”
The Nevada City fire chief had concerns, but ended up donating spare smoke detectors to install in the homes. Senum said that since then, some property owners have even brought in a person in a micro-house to live on site in order to prevent illegal dumping or encampments.
Senum added that micro-houses are only a short-term solution while they community works on other projects, such as creating a sanctioned homeless camp like Portland’s Dignity Village – an idea that has also been floated in Abbotsford.
“We’re trying to make people’s lives more comfortable while we bridge the gap and figure out how to do this.”
Senum, who is now on the board of directors of Sierra Roots, a organization that provides sustainable solutions to local homelessness, said that with the ongoing recession and the ever increasing constraints on government resources, there is more need for grassroot efforts to assist marginalized community members.
“If the churches and community and creative people themselves don’t step up, we’re going to keep diving into a deeper crisis. From what I can tell, I don’t see any signs of the homelessness issue alleviating in the future.”