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Silicon Valley’s temporary fix for homelessness: tiny houses

San Jose just authorized two planned tiny house communities.

Silicon Valley’s temporary fix for homelessness: tiny houses
[Photo: Derek_Neumann/iStock]

Tiny homes have been considered a possible solution for homelessness for years. Designers have floated concepts for tiny dwellings for the homeless that perch on building walls. Portland, Oregon, has even launched a program to encourage homeowners to install a tiny house in their backyard, which a homeless family could rent out for five years.

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In the Bay Area, where homelessness rates have hovered at crisis level for years, a partnership between the San Jose City Council, the nonprofit HomeFirst, and Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley leans on tiny homes as a solution, or at least a temporary one. On December 18, the Council approved the development of two communities of tiny homes to shelter the homeless as they transition into more permanent housing, which the city has been trying to construct to meet demand. The communities will both be open by next summer. In San Jose and the surrounding Santa Clara County, over 7,000 people are homeless, and 75% of them do not have access to a shelter.

The two tiny home communities, which will contain 40 cabins each, along with communal space and showers, are meant as an alternative to the tent communities that spring up when a city fails to provide adequate shelter. Because they often take root in public spaces, tent communities are often then forced to move by law enforcement. Advocates argue that crackdowns do nothing to alleviate the issue of homelessness in a city, and more crucially, they make life even more difficult for people already experiencing homelessness. In San Jose, the nonprofit Hope Village helped a tent community near the airport receive a short-term lease for their lot after they voiced concerns about being removed.

While tiny home communities, like the ones planned in San Jose, offer unsheltered people more stability, they’re not a perfect solution. CBS reports that other cities, like Oakland, have introduced villages of Tuff Sheds–durable, modular tiny homes–to house the homeless. But people living there have said that the rules and police surveillance at the sites have set them on edge. In San Jose, the communities will have 24/7 surveillance for at least the first year the homes are occupied; it’s not clear what criteria would need to be met to indicate that such tight security is not necessary. On top of police presence, representatives from HomeFirst, which will manage the communities, will be there to offer assistance.

The San Jose City Council is hopeful that the tiny home communities will provide a more stable stepping stone to permanent housing than tent encampments. In addition to the private cabins, the communities will have shared computer rooms, which people can use to apply for jobs and access other resources, as well as communal kitchens and laundry facilities. James Stagi, San Jose’s homeless response manager, told the Mercury News that he hopes people will be able to move from the cabins into permanent housing in as little as three to six months. That, of course, will be contingent on the city continuing to build and manage affordable housing that’s truly accessible to people in need.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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