Commentary: Tiny homes a big solution for Petaluma

Committee on the Shelterless CEO Chuck Fernandez throws in for tiny home project.|

Tiny homes have been around for a long time. Some define it as a house less than 400 square feet. Many are much smaller – 100 square feet or less. They come in lots of bright colors, styles, shapes, and building materials. Some even have wheels on them. But one thing is for certain – people have lots of opinions about tiny homes.

For some who embrace the tiny homes lifestyle, it represents a shift in their values – a preference for simplicity; freedom from the many responsibilities of living in and the maintenance required of a large home; environmental consciousness; self-sufficiency; and even saving money. For them, less is more.

But for those experiencing homelessness who have very little, a tiny home is about having more – a sense of privacy and security where one can lock their door at night; a sense of dignity, pride, and empowerment of having a place to call home; getting a good night’s sleep without the fear of being beaten or awakened to evacuate the campsite; a place to store their belongings; and a place to be with their loved one and pets. In a tiny home or tiny homes village, there are also shared hygiene facilities – bathrooms, showers, washers and dryers, clean water – the human basics we all take for granted. There can also be a community kitchen with refrigerators, cooktops, microwaves or even a meal delivery service.

As COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, tiny homes are even more important for those experiencing homelessness. The mandate from public health and the CDC to shelter in place, social distance, and to maintain proper hygiene is not possible if you don’t have a home. A fundamental necessity of homelessness is the constant search for food, bathrooms, warmth, water, and shelter. That means interacting with others or being in public places. The homeless are often elderly or in poor health, which are two significant risk factors for COVID-19.

Congregate shelters have been forced to reduce their bed capacity to accommodate social distancing. That means there are fewer people in shelters and thus more on the streets. My guess is that after COVID-19, it’s unlikely that public health will allow shelters to return to their normal practice of allowing residents to sleep in close proximity. So where are those folks to go? Back on the streets, public parks, and on private property. And as I mentioned in my column on environmental justice, the damage that unsheltered residents cause to the environment is significant.

So are tiny homes the solution to homelessness? They are one temporary, necessary, and big step in addressing our homeless crisis. They are inexpensive and quick to build. And they are part of broader and longer-term strategy to address homelessness that includes building more permanent and affordable housing; having more housing vouchers that allow individuals and families to live in market-rate places; and providing intense wrap-around case management services that includes mental health and substance abuse counseling that help residents stabilize and stay in their home.

Tiny homes are also where the transformation can begin where residents transition into more permanent housing. Given their empowerment, sense of pride and dignity, and access to many services to help them return to health and wellness, don’t be surprised if the residents in tiny homes achieve more success than those in traditional congregate shelters to get permanent housing. It’s where the magic can happen.

And one more very important thing. Housing is a human right – especially if its temporary, tiny, and for people experiencing homelessness.

Chuck Fernandez is the CEO of Committee on the Shelterless, a Petaluma-based homelessness services nonprofit.

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