By Sue Ontiveros
One night a week I give a friend a ride home, and when we get off the Drive at Lawrence Avenue, that’s when I see them.
Actually, I shouldn’t say “them.” I don’t ever see people, just zipped-up tents. But I know they are inside, folks who obviously can’t afford to live indoors and, for whatever reason, don’t go to shelters.
In an orderly little row, the tents line the viaduct. Often this winter they sat next to hills of snow plowed onto the sidewalk.
Every time we drive past, I can’t help but think, isn’t there another way?
So when I saw that Downstate Bloomington is considering a plan to build tiny houses for the homeless, I wanted to learn more.
Tiny houses are trending big these days, but until now I knew of them mostly in regards to those who see the petite places as a way to get rid of the clutter – real and metaphorical – in their lives. There’s even a show – “Tiny House Nation” – on cable.
Frankly, when I see tiny homes posted dreamily on Facebook, the cynical me is thinking: really, with your collection of shoes, you think a tiny house would work?
But tiny homes for the homeless? Now that sounds like an idea worth exploring.
The Bloomington plan that is being floated – by a team that includes representatives from the city, social service agencies and clergy – proposes building 350-square-foot homes at some $12,000 apiece. They would be placed near public transportation and there would be social services for the home dwellers as well.
Actually, according to the Pantagraph story on this proposal, Olympia, Wash., and Newfield, N.Y., each have a community of tiny houses for the homeless, as does Madison, Wis.
The affordability of building these tiny homes caught Ed Shurna’s eye. Shurna is the executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Building affordable housing is so costly, according to Shurna, that in Chicago it’s in the neighborhood of $300,000 a unit.
Ah, but affordable tiny houses? That’s something new, and intriguing. “It could be talked about in Chicago,” says Shurna. “It’s a nice way to get people off the street.”
Certainly, a number of factors would have to be considered, such as how the house would fit in a neighborhood – although there’s certainly no shortage of empty lots here – and Shurna sees value in involving some sort of sweat equity. “People get pride in something that’s theirs,” he says.
The idea of linking social services to tiny houses for the homeless is another good aspect of the Bloomington proposal. “For some people, [housing] without services isn’t the solution,” Shurna says. “Sometimes they just need some help.”
Shurna also pointed out that in new construction throughout the city, you can see the trend toward smaller housing, even for those who could afford more. (A building going up at Ashland and North is renting 400-square-foot units for $1,200, he points out.)
When I look at those tents, I often wonder if maybe the occupants choose that alternative because once the entry is zipped up, the person is in his or her own little world.
Tiny affordable houses could offer them that too, as well as heat, safety and dignity.