AmeriCorps Week: Providing Transitional Shelter through Tiny Houses

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Christina Estimé discusses her service providing transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness as the Tiny House Village and Essential Needs Coordinator at the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle, Wash.

“I’m with the tiny houses.” That is the elevator pitch I find myself giving these days, which is usually followed by an excited shriek of “Oh wow! How cool! I’ve always wanted to live in a tiny house!” I have practiced my response to this reaction over and over again and have finally boiled it down to a kind smile and a clarification that the tiny houses I work with are not of the HGTV variety but rather transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Then, I patiently watch as their expression fades from eager interest to a fading look of guilt and sympathy.

I serve with the Low Income Housing Institute as the Tiny House and Essential Needs Coordinator. We provide transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness, including single men, single women, couples, families, and those with pets. We are the step in between coming off the street and permanent housing. Many people have been experiencing homelessness chronically and for them, going from living outdoors for a long period of time is even more destabilizing than staying unhoused. Many people can’t get shelter – even overnight – because they are a couple, or they are in a family, and many shelters don’t allow pets. All of these scenarios represent the population that the Tiny House Program provides transitional housing for. We provide a stable, safe, and dignified community for those that need a home base.

Before the 2015 City of Seattle Sanctioned Encampment ordinance was passed, those that were experiencing homelessness and camping were setting up their tents and belongings all throughout the city of Seattle wherever there was a clear, dry spot. That included many areas not meant for human habitation. Many of the people experiencing homelessness just need a home base to either reintegrate into the system (including things such as getting an ID, getting their social security card, having an address so that they can apply for a job or housing, etc.). Some people are gainfully employed but can’t afford the current housing costs of Seattle. Some people just need to be stable long enough to reconnect with their families and move on.

Although our model is working, it can feel as though we are fighting an unwinnable battle at times. It will never be the case that we provide a tiny house to all those currently experiencing homelessness tonight. LIHI and our partners, Nickelsville and SHARE, currently operate six encampments providing shelter to over 300 people. The current number of those experiencing homelessness on any given night in Seattle is estimated to be around 11,000 people, according to the 2017 Point in Time Count. There is no speed at which we can realistically source and build tiny houses fast enough, nor can the city provide a place to build these villages fast enough. Although this will be a long road, we can continue to do our best and provide a community to those that cross our path.

Two of our camps’ “leases” were up in the fall and winter, and we have recently successfully moved one of them and we are currently in the process of moving the other. The fall was all about the Interbay move. The first sanctioned encampment LIHI partnered with was set up with only tents and one shed that served to house security. Part of the move required the transition from all tents to all tiny houses. Our team had about four work parties and went through a lot of stress trying to get everything up and running before the camp finally moved on November 16. This past week, we had to do a routine unit check on the fire safety of the tiny houses. We hadn’t had the chance to visit the camp since late December, and we had the chance to catch the residents on a regular Tuesday morning. The residents were incredibly proud and excited to show off their houses. As we walked up they were more than happy to let us check their units and show what they have done to make them their own. There was a sense of home and community at the camp, and that day it truly dawned on me what these encampments were all about.

I wish more people understood how familiar the stories of those experiencing homelessness are. Many people hold strong biases and opinions about those experiencing homelessness. Having had the incredible opportunity to be immersed in this cause as much as I have been, has not only granted me compassion for those that I serve, but an incredible lens through which I shall now and forever more deeply analyze this issue. Homelessness is a result of several different factors, none of which include laziness or lack of motivation. Those that are experiencing homelessness are some of the strongest, most hopeful, and bravest humans I have ever had the chance to encounter. A lot of them are broken, yes, but we are all broken. Some of us just have the privilege and opportunity to be held, to be safe, and warm in our brokenness. I wish everyone would see that we all deserve housing, yes, but also kindness. I have put faces and names to this city’s homelessness crisis and the message is loud and clear: those living in the outdoors are our neighbors and we should strive to be good to each other. Whether with a smile or volunteering your time, we should all extend the table a little more to our neighbors.

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