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Micro-homing could transform housing, even here

Published on 1/8/2022

“Imagine a combat vet in his small town where there’s low crime and a high military population. He should fit into the community, but he’s unhomed. He has a disability and complex trauma.” Ted Brinegar, founder of Foxhole Homes, began explaining his objectives by focusing on the challenges that result in homelessness. Brinegar, who has decades of experience working with active duty and retired military vets, founded his non-profit in 2015 with the primary goal of providing sustainable housing and community for vets.

“What gets people to homelessness in the beginning?” Brinegar asked. “Often it begins with physical and health issues that make it impossible for a person to hold down a regular full time job. They are relegated to part-time or gig work.” This could be anyone with a complex trauma: a woman escaping abusive relationships, sexual assault, anyone with an addiction, or those with a disability. Like all humans, they need safety and security. The difference is how they calculate safety and security. Consider a vet who learned to sleep in a foxhole or tent and eat MREs (meals ready-to-eat), or an addict who has learned to tolerate hunger and swings in temperatures. 

“When physiological needs are easy to meet and they don’t feel in danger, choosing homelessness fulfills their sense of security because they don’t have to have to stress about fitting into a work situation.” Brinegar explained, relating this to Maslow’s theory on how humans prioritize needs.

Some people may not be able to work enough hours to support a conventional lifestyle, subsidized rent, utilities, detergent and laundromat costs, transportation, work appropriate clothing, and medical care. Many of the working poor maintain more than one job, have to juggle how managers schedule them, and find transportation. They live on a precipice, always close to a spiral into disaster. If one place evicts them, or they have to be transported by ambulance, or pay hospital bills, they may not be able to recover. Fees compile. Credit scores fail. Evictions stalk them. The stress is visceral. 

On this level, homelessness seems functionally better than trying to fit into a system that doesn’t work for them, Brinegar noted. He’s designing micro homes that are both green and self-sustaining so they can live in a dignified way that functions with their (dis)abilities. Foxhole Homes is experimenting on prototypes that meet building code but also use off-the-grid designs that recycle water and waste, provide non-electric temperature stability, solar for electricity, even hydroponic garden spaces.

Micro homes for the unhomed are nation-wide innovations popping up in Oregon, California, Washington, Tennessee, even here in Indiana.

In fall of 2019, Circle City Village held public meetings as they began the process of creating a village of tiny homes to meet the needs of chronically unhomed people in Indianapolis. These homes will house people currently living in tents that dot downtown Indianapolis, no longer hidden along the White River behind defunct warehouses or under bridges. They’ve become more visible as the COVID crisis continues. 

In Knoxville, Tennessee, Ashlind Bray, a mother of two, noticed that tent communities had spread downtown. Knoxville, like Indianapolis, first responded with sweeps that criminalized the needy. Knoxville residents responded to the tents as well as the sweeps with shock.  Bray started researching how other cities, like Portland and Seattle, were helping those sleeping in tents.

Bray and her husband had once chatted with the unhomed while walking their dog. As they emerged from the lockdown, they resumed taking bottled water, hand sanitizer, and socks, stopping to ask what people needed. Some asked for a place to store belongings while waiting for Section 8 housing. Many waited over two months for subsidized housing. Knoxville needed transitional housing, she thought. The more she researched, she realized they could provide up to six micro homes on a city lot, as Eugene’s SquareOne Villages does. So she began Tiny Village Knoxville. In 2020, she and her supporters funded and purchased a first lot to build four to six micro homes with a small kitchenette with a hot pad, small fridge, a microwave, and a tiny ADA accessible bathroom with shower stall. The home designs and legal work are being donated by University of Tennessee students and staff. The initial community will also have a communal space with washer, dryer, and gathering place, as well as staff for security, advocacy, and case management. Bray hopes this will lead to a number of other micro home villages in the rural and urban areas.

Our county has unhomed people: single parents car-camp in parks and store lots. Our transient population often bounces from jail to couch to the Lafayette shelter. Elderly and disabled people depend on relatives or are forced to move away. While the good news is that our eviction filings have dropped from almost three hundred in 2019 to one hundred sixty-seven this year, each evicted person will struggle to recover and strain families. When we are proactive and keep people out of the pipeline of homeless and jail, we strengthen our community.