On May 22nd near the corner of 38th and Walnut in downtown Denver, workers sat down to mid-day sandwiches under Colorado blue skies, having already put in a full day’s work. Volunteers and professional builders have nearly completed a collection of small houses that will serve as permanent homes for area homeless. Just two days earlier, founding partner of nonprofit, Denver’s Homeless Out Loud, reported that 20 homeless individuals were swept by city workers just blocks away, further demonstrating the need for homeless housing.
The “Tiny Home Village,” is being built by the Colorado Village Collaborative headed by Denver Homeless Out Loud, a nonprofit organization comprised of volunteers currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. Eleven 8x12 foot structures (96 square feet) with 3x8 foot front porches are being built. Denver Homeless Out Loud co-founder, Benjamin Dunning said, “The project is a good solution because it’s inexpensive. But it’s more than just buildings. This is a village concept, it’s a community, sharing other resources. You can’t ignore the community aspect of this project.” Similar small home communities already exist in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.
Several organizations partnered to plan and build the project through the Colorado Village Collaborative including the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, the Urban Land Conservancy, Bayaud Industries and the Buck Foundation. According to Dunning, “Normally, projects serving homeless are protested with outcries from the neighborhood, we got letters of recommendation from neighborhood organizations - Curtis Park, Cole, RiNo – that’s unheard of.”
An insufficient number of available shelter beds, lack of mental health services and unpredictable weather, especially biting Colorado winters, have always made living on Denver’s streets hard. Now it’s getting harder. Increasing populations of opioid addicts willing to rob easy targets of anything valuable to exchange for their next fix has put a new level of pressure on Denver homeless. For those who once might have been able to scrap together enough to rent a place, record high rents and a streak of annual rent increases have kept them on the street. Others with mental health challenges might not be able to acquire resources to get help or even ask for it. Finally, legislation passed two years ago by Denver City Council that criminalized homelessness foreshadowed sweeps by City government, ridding streets of homeless and at the same time, separating homeless from their most prized possessions. Besides the Tiny Houses project, Denver’s Homeless Out Loud is party to a class-action lawsuit fighting the sweeps that moved homeless off Denver streets and disposed of their belongings.
Dunning considers the Tiny Houses effort the culmination of years of work since their founding years ago, “We’ve been advocating for smaller homes ever since our inception. It’s part of a bigger picture, like pushing Right to Rest legislation… we ran that for the last 3 years to nullify city homeless criminal ordinances.” To fund construction, the collaborative has set up a fundraising page. To date, $25,000 of the $30,000 goal has been met.
National Homeless Population
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reports that more than 2.5-3.5 million U.S. residents “sleep in shelters, transitional housing, and public places not meant for human habitation.” More than 1.35 million children and over 1 million working adults are among that population. Communities of color are over-represented in homeless populations. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 39 percent of U.S. homeless are African American and 16 percent are Latino. Veterans account for 11 percent of the population and survivors of domestic violence comprise 15 percent.
Communities of color are also over-represented in the population considered “cost burdened” – paying over 50 percent of their income in rent and most at risk of homelessness. A 2012 Harvard Housing Studies report showed 27 percent of African American households, 21 percent of Asians, and 24 percent of Latinos falling in the category of cost burdened.