By HOLLY MEYER, Associated Press
Churches across the United States are tackling the big question of how to address homelessness in their communities with a small solution: small homes.
On vacant lots near their parking lots and steeple-like shrines, congregations are building everything from stationary, fully confined micro-houses to small mobile cabins, and several other styles of space-saving dwellings in between.
Church leaders are not just trying to be friendlier. The desire to provide shelter is rooted in their beliefs – they must take care of vulnerable people, especially those without homes.
“It’s such an integral part of who we are as people of faith,” said Reverend Lisa Fischbeck, former Episcopal vicar and board chair of Pee Wee Homes, an affordable housing organization that builds tiny mansions in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. .
Fischbeck led the Episcopal Church of the Advocate when it added three one-bedroom units to its 15-acre campus. The first residents, including the organization’s namesake, Nathaniel “Pee Wee” Lee, moved in in June 2019.
Prior to that, Lee, 78, had spent years sleeping in alleyways, cardboard sheds and cars after medical issues ended his career as a bricklayer. Today he enjoys watching TV at home, growing tomatoes and fishing in the nearby pond.
“I thank the Lord because this is mine and no one can chase me away,” Lee said, laughing as he sat on the porch of his little white house.
Fischbeck said the tiny houses can fit almost anywhere, and the advantage of building them on church properties is that they already have electricity, water and other infrastructure. in place.
“I feel so passionately that churches have space,” she said. “Just consider it. It is a crying need. »
The adoption of tiny houses as housing solutions can be found in both sacred and secular spaces. In the Christian sphere, their use spans denominations. Often, tiny house projects rely on related departments, such as providing parking spaces for people living in their cars. Beneficiaries are generally invited to attend worship services but are not required to do so.
Some church projects are already operational, while others are still working on move-in day, such as the Church of the Nazarene congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is assembling a small community of homes for the homeless. shelter chronicles with a local non-profit organization. .
“We don’t have a lot of assets,” said Jeff O’Rourke, senior pastor of Mosaic Christian Community in St. Paul. “We’ve just strived to use every square inch of property that we have to be hospitable.”
This spring in El Cajon, Calif., Meridian Baptist partnered with local Amikas to begin building emergency sleeping cabins on a portion of its property that church pastor Rolland Slade said. , is generally unoccupied except by tumbleweeds.
Mothers with children — a hard-to-house demographic — can stay for 90 days and be hooked up to the city’s housing safety net for more permanent options. Bathrooms and a shared kitchen are in a nearby church building.
“People told me six cabins wouldn’t make a difference, and I strongly disagree,” Slade said. “We will make a difference for at least six women. If they each have one child, it will be six children.
For help with building, running, and dealing with bureaucratic hurdles, churches often turn to community organizations like Amikas, Pee Wee Homes, and Settled.
Firm Foundation Community Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area is another. It was started by the Reverend Jake Medcalf, the former senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, when the congregation built tiny transitional housing in its parking lot.
Houses of worship not only have land to spare, Medcalf said, but are positioned to “provide to the community in a way that is truly humanizing and part of anyone’s basic healing and recovery.”
In 2020, the First Christian Church of Tacoma in Washington State became the home site for a small community of shelters created by the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute. The non-profit association manages the village, allowing the congregation to contribute without overextending themselves.
“We don’t have a lot of money. We don’t have a lot of people…but we care a lot about it, and we have this property,” said Reverend Doug Collins, the church’s senior minister.
Not everyone welcomes these projects in their neighborhood. In Nashville, Tennessee, plans to build small homes by Glencliff United Methodist Church have drawn backlash and lawsuits from some neighbors. In the end, the village of Glencliff prevailed, and today an arch of multicolored micro-houses greet worshipers as they enter the church aisle.
It specializes in helping people with medical issues, like 37-year-old William “Green Bay” Scribner, who spent seven months recuperating there. Not only was he able to leave in better health, he said, but village staff helped him find a more permanent apartment where he can house his young daughter overnight.
For people with medical vulnerabilities like Scribner, “housing saves lives,” said Reverend Ingrid McIntyre, United Methodist minister and village founder.
A nationwide survey, the last conducted unaffected by the pandemic, found around 580,000 people were homeless one night in January 2020, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homelessness assessment report. in Congress. The number, based on point counts, has increased for the fourth year.
So the tiny houses movement alone is too small to solve the whole problem, said Marybeth Shinn, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied homelessness for decades. It would be difficult to scale to meet the overwhelming demand.
“It’s good to help some people, but we have to find solutions that will help a lot of others,” Shinn said.
Donald Whitehead, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he supported churches using their free space to help the homeless and saw tiny houses as a great emergency option, but added that homeless deserved standard-sized housing like everyone else.
“It can be included in a menu of resources that would help with homelessness,” Whitehead said. “If there is a possibility of building an ordinary house at the same price, we would prefer that people build the ordinary house.”
Meanwhile, churches are also finding small houses useful as temporary accommodations following a natural disaster.
Months after a deadly December tornado tore through Mayfield, Kentucky, some tenants were still displaced. Bread of Life Humanitarian Effort, a nonprofit organization of the Churches of Christ, stepped in to help.
With Mayfield congregations joining, the nonprofit used donations that poured in and began building small houses wherever they could get permission, including next to Northside Church of Christ.
“You have people who are hurting,” said Bread of Life treasurer Joel Crider. “It is our Christian duty to watch over them.”
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