Tiny House Trends: Homelessness & Sustainability

Having been interested in tiny houses for a while now, I continue to be pleasantly surprised by new developments in the movement. One of the more recent developments in the many uses for tiny houses is making permanent housing the first, most crucial part of a comprehensive strategy to help counteract homelessness. Home ownership is a significant step forward for most members of the homeless community. It is perhaps the most important factor involved in restoring a sense of dignity for a homeless individual.

As Kelly Schwend, Maureen Cluskey, and Michael Cordell point out in their 2015 SAGE Open study, “Lifestyles and Goals of Homeless Male Shelter Users,” structured, goal-oriented programming is essential “To move individuals from poverty, addiction, chronic disease, and homelessness to self-sufficiency and reintegration into society.” In other words, a permanent home alone is not enough. Individuals also need a built-in support system and goals to work toward. Therefore, the addition of a network of career mentors, coaches, and teachers, for example, helps immensely.

Seeing homelessness as something that can be solved with the help of homeless shelters alone is a naïve and limited perspective that doesn’t take all factors into account. Schwend and Cluskey, both health educators at Bradley University, understand the importance of taking into account the whole individual, rather than just the part. The SAGE Open study cited above also notes the following: “Services for the homeless population must provide interdisciplinary interventions including supportive housing, which facilitates social reintegration, assistance with obtaining employment or vocational training, and the provision of comprehensive health care services.” Any successful effort to reduce chronic homelessness in a given population requires this type of multi-pronged approach.



The burgeoning tiny house and community-centered movement in homeless populations is proof of this. There are a number of tiny house enclaves springing up around the United States that address this need for a comprehensive approach. One such tiny house community that is doing this is Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Community First! Village, located in Austin, Texas. This community-based project incorporates flexible housing with a community garden, mental health support services, and access to Wi-Fi, kitchens, nature trails, etc. A more comprehensive approach like this one takes the complicated nature of re-entry into society into account, which dramatically increases the chances of eventual self-sufficiency.

Of course, homeless people aren’t the only people interested in tiny houses. Greg Johnson, co-founder of the Small House Society, stresses that the reasons for seeking out a tiny house are varied: “People think that this small house movement is anti-big,” Johnson said. “The small house movement isn’t about people who live big. It’s about making options available for people who want to live small.” The reasons for wanting to live small sometimes include necessity, but not always. There are a number of people who want independence from the grid, excess expenses, or the burden of pollution and unnecessary energy consumption.

Because the sustainability movement has grown in such great numbers, there is an entire art movement based on creating art and sculpture from found materials. If you’re interested in green building, salvaging, and sustainability, it may be worthwhile to try to cultivate a community made up of like-minded folks. Consider starting a business related to this way of life. An organization with not-for-profit status is eligible for a whole host of grants and funding sources that wouldn’t ordinarily be available to you as a for-profit retail-style business.

Regardless of the end goals, many small business guides are focused on financing and innovation resources that can help you get your idea off the proverbial ground. Much of the strategy behind networking involves building community: one of the best ways to start a new community is to work with what is already established. What are some of the networks that might be open to innovative building and sustainable housing projects? Try tabling at some of these events to get the word out. You can always volunteer for other organizations that are connected in some way to your startup organization’s values, as well.

For example, if you are interested in started an ecovillage like the Boise EcoVillage Project, you can begin to generate interest by attending events related to tiny houses, green building, sustainable lifestyles, local CSAs, and community festivals like farmer’s markets and other locally-based gatherings related to supporting the local economy, the homeless population, and underemployed individuals. This expansion of thinking sustainably into a way of life for everyone—rather than only homeless individuals—expands the conversation to make small-scale living into a desired commodity for a variety of demographics.

Take, for example, this article on book storage in small spaces—tiny houses mostly, yes, but also a small house and a New York City apartment. This expansion of the tiny house market enables us to see smaller-scale living as a potential and inspiring way of life rather than just a fad. Rather than focusing on the manufacturing of tiny house plans and new green building materials, the focus shifts to a creative way of thinking about space and possessions that benefits us both economically and environmentally—a plus for anyone with student loans to pay off or a less-than-ideal income situation to contend with.

In conclusion, tiny houses are becoming about more than a great way to save money and look hip. They’re helping to combat a variety of problems we’re dealing with as a nation: homelessness, a slumping economy, rising inequality, and an environment in need of resuscitation and drastic measures in order to curb our nationwide tendency to consume more energy than we need. Projects like Boise EcoVillage and Community First! Village take the comprehensive approach often recommended by social scientists and health care experts who stress the importance of caring for the whole person in efforts to alleviate the causes of homelessness. The good news is, science is on our side regarding this issue: small and alternative home construction is the way of the future, and DIY is more than just a passing fad; it’s crucial to sustaining life on this planet without being tied to external sources for our livelihood and means of shelter.

Do you have any desire to build or live in a tiny house? I’d love to hear about them. Post your plans in a comment below!  

Image by Mobile Loaves & Fishes

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