A roof over their heads: churches use small houses for the homeless

by Kerry G. Alvarez

Churches in the US are tackling the big question of how to tackle homelessness in their communities with a small solution: small homes.

On vacant lots near their parking lots and spired sanctuaries, municipalities are building everything from fixed and fully enclosed micro-homes to tiny, movable shacks and various other styles of small homes in between.

Church leaders don’t just try to be kinder. The urge to shelter is rooted in their beliefs – they must care for the vulnerable, especially those without a home.

 churches use small houses for the homeless

“It’s just such an integral part of who we are as a people of faith,” said Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, former Vicar Episcopal and Pee Wee Homes board chairman. This affordable housing organization builds small homes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. †

Fischbeck led the Episcopal Church of the Advocate by adding three one-bedroom units on its 15-acre campus. The first residents, including the organization’s namesake Nathaniel “Pee Wee” Lee, moved in in June 2019.

Before that, Lee, 78, had spent years sleeping in alleys, cardboard shelters, and cars after medical problems ended his masonry career. Today, he likes to watch TV in his house and o  grow tomatoes, does, and fish in the nearby pond.

“I thank the Lord because this is mine, and no one can drive me away,” Lee said, laughing as he sat on the porch of his little white house.

Fischbeck said tiny houses could fit almost anywhere, and one advantage of building on church properties is that they already have electricity, water, and other infrastructure.

“I just feel so passionately that churches have space,” she said. “Consider it. It is desperately needed.”

The embrace of tiny houses as housing solutions can be found in sacred and secular spaces. Within the Christian sphere, their usage includes denominations. Often the small house projects build on related ministries, such as providing parking spaces for people living in their cars. Beneficiaries are generally welcome to attend worship services but are not required.

Some churches’ projects are already in the air, while others are still working on move-in days, such as the Church of the Nazarene congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, building a tiny house community for the chronically homeless with a local nonprofit. Settled.

“We don’t own much property,” said Jeff O’Rourke, principal pastor of the Mosaic Christian Community in St. Paul. “We just strived to use every square inch of the property to be hospitable.”

This spring in El Cajon, California, Meridian Baptist teamed up with local nonprofit Amikas to build emergency sleeper cabins on a portion of his property that Church pastor Rolland Slade said is mostly unoccupied except by tumbleweeds.

Mothers with children — a difficult demographic to accommodate — can stay for 90 days and be connected to the city’s safety net for more permanent options. Bathrooms and a communal kitchen are located in a nearby church building.

“People have told me that six cabins won’t make a difference, and I disagree,” Slade said. “We are going to make a difference for at least six women. If they each have a child, that’s six children.”

Churches often turn to community organizations such as Amikas, Pee Wee Homes, and Settled for help building, operating, and dealing with bureaucratic hurdles.

Firm Foundation Community Housing is another in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was launched by Rev. Jake Medcalf, the former leading pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hayward when the congregation built small temporary houses in the parking lot.

Medcalf said that houses of worship have land to spare and are positioned to “provide a community in a way that is truly human and part of everyone’s basic healing and recovery.”

In 2020, the First Christian Church of Tacoma in Washington State became a host location for a small home community established by the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute. The nonprofit operates the village, allowing the congregation to contribute without overburdening itself.

“We don’t have a lot of money. We don’t have many people… but we care a lot,d we have this piece of land,” said Rev. Doug Collins, the church’s senior pastor.

Not everyone welcomes these projects in their neighborhood. In Nashville, Tennessee plans to build Glencliff United Methodist Church tiny houses sparked opposition and lawsuits from some neighbors. In the end, the village of Glencliff won, and today an arc of multicolored micro-dwellings greets parishioners as they drive up the church driveway.

It specializes in helping people with medical problems, such as William “Green Bay” Scribner, 37, who stayed there for seven months to recover. Not only could he live more healthily, he said, the village staff also helped him secure a more permanent apartment where he could house his young daughter at night.

For people with medical vulnerabilities like Scribner, “housing is life-saving,” said Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, a United Methodist minister, and village founder.

A nationwide survey, the latest conducted without being affected by the pandemic, found that about 580,000 people were homeless on one night in January 2020, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual loss assessment report to Congress. The number rose, based on point-in-time counts, for the fourth year.

So the tiny home movement 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 up to meet the overwhelming demand.

“It’s good to help some people, but we need to come up with solutions that can help many more people,” Shinn said.

Donald Whitehead, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he supports churches that use their free space to help the homeless. He sees small homes as a great emergency option but added that homeless people deserve standard housing like everyone else.

“It can be included in a menu of resources that can help tackle homelessness,” Whitehead said. “If there’s an opportunity to build a regular house for the same price, we’d rather people build the regular house.”

Meanwhile, churches are also finding small houses useful as temporary housing after a natural disaster.

Months after a deadly December tornado swept through Mayfield, Kentucky, some tenants were still displaced. Bread of Life Humanitarian Effort, a nonprofit of Churches of Christ, came to the rescue.

With buy-in from Mayfield congregations, the nonprofit used donations pouring in and started setting up little houses where they could get permission — including next to Northside Church of Christ.

“You have people who are hurting,” said Joel Crider, treasurer of Bread of Life. “It is our Christian duty to care for them.”

Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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