Looking for home

Front Range cities refuse tiny homes for the homeless

Courtesy Denver Homeless Out Loud

All the first tiny home villages required civil disobedience,” says Marcus Hyde of Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), a group of both advocates and people experiencing homelessness working in the Denver area. On Saturday, Oct. 24, 10 members of the group were arrested in the Curtis Park neighborhood in Denver for erecting several tiny homes on Denver Housing Authority (DHA) property known as Sustainability Park.

DHOL has been proposing a tiny home village as a solution to homelessness for over a year. Hyde says the group has been in communication with the City and originally DHA showed interest and asked for a concept plan and proposal. “We did community outreach, asked homeless folks what they would like to see in a village, with five community forums with hundreds of homeless,” Hyde says. “You don’t go to court without a lawyer [and you] shouldn’t be planning homeless services without homeless people — people who actually know the need.”

The group also reached out to other tiny home villages across the country for input. One such village is Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, which houses 60 people over the age of 18 without other housing options. A combination of tiny homes, smaller Conestoga huts and community facilities, Dignity Village is self-governed by the people who live there, with a small set of rules including no drugs, no alcohol and no violence. The transitional camp began in embroiled debate with Portland City Council over a tent-city of homeless people that sprang up on public land in downtown Portland in 2000.

Closer to home, it took DHOL two months to put together the concept plan, but Hyde says DHA never responded. Stella Madrid, community affairs officer with DHA, says representatives from her organization did meet with DHOL in December 2014 and August 2015.

Madrid says that in all of the conversations with DHOL, DHA clearly indicated it could not undertake the project. “There are so many steps that need to be taken for [tiny homes] to become a policy under city zoning and ordinances and laws. We don’t have a position one way or the other until some of those elements are in place.”

Members of DHOL also run into zoning roadblocks throughout the city when they attempt to find their own location for tiny homes.

But in July, the group held a public demonstration day and tour of tiny homes in Denver, as part of the Biennial of the Americas event, wherein its supporters constructed a Conestoga hut in two hours. Then, DHOL initiated a community-funded online campaign to raise money for the “Little Denver Tiny Home Village” raising over $5,000 since the beginning of October. The materials for one tiny home costs $2,500 and a Conestoga hut costs approximately $600. On Oct. 24, the activists erected two tiny homes and three Conestoga huts at Sustainability Park, renaming it Resurrection Village.

Ten members were eventually arrested for trespassing.

DHA, owner of the land at Sustainability Park, is a “quasi-municipal corporation,” which receives almost 90 percent of its funds from the federal government. Its Board of Commissioners is appointed by the Denver mayor and approved by City Council. However, the “quasi-municipal corporation” status ensures that the land it owns is private property according to Madrid.

DHA is in the process of selling the property to Curtis Park Group, LLC, a private developer with plans to build mixed-income housing on the site. The sale is scheduled to close within the next 30 days, and DHA is unable to release the price of the land with the sale still pending. The proceeds from the sale will be reinvested into permanent affordable housing.

But DHOL insists the land is public, paid for by federal and local tax dollars. When the activists refused to leave, roughly 70 police cars, SWAT team and a helicopter arrived, arresting the 10 people, Hyde says. DHA then hired a private contractor to come and remove the DHOL structures, which it has yet to return.

“The ridiculous thing is there is so much public support for this. People donated to the bail fund, which was raised before we even got down to the jail,” Hyde says. “People want other people experiencing homelessness to have housing and they want tiny homes to be legal. They want people to be treated with dignity and their rights to be respected.

“The solution to homelessness is not cops and caseworkers,” he continues. “Homelessness ends in one simple step. Give them a house. We know it’s cheaper; it’s more dignified. We know it’s been proven.”

“There’s no question that we believe wholeheartedly in housing as a platform for change in people’s lives,” says Betsey Martens of Boulder Housing Partners (BHP), the housing authority for the city of Boulder. “The results have been quite astonishing of using housing as a platform to then provide support for people to make the changes in their lives that they want and need. The research on it is vast.”

BHP uses this concept as part of its Housing First initiative at the 1175 Lee Hill property, which has 31 apartments for people experiencing chronic homelessness. The facility also offers support services through case managers, which Martens emphasizes as a key part of the solution in a housing first model.

Boulder City Councilmember Lisa Morzel is in support of tiny homes and even a tiny village. The only obstacle, she says, is finding a location. “But I do think they are a good solution because if you can find the land, to construct them is relatively inexpensive.”

Tiny homes would allow people the safety of having their own space, as well as privacy, and a place to leave belongings during the day while they are out in the community, Morzel says. “Something like a tiny home village for homeless people would have to be managed. I think it would also have to have some kind of central facility that has bathing facilities, cooking facilities and maybe a common area for people to sit and visit.”

She suggests the possibility of using land owned by Boulder Housing Partners, although she admits zoning could be another obstacle.

“We will look at [tiny homes] but we just haven’t spent time exploring it yet,” Martens says. She also wasn’t able to answer whether or not BHP land is public or private.

“I’ve never been asked that question,” Martens says. “We will begin today to ask the question. It’s always something new.”

Following the arrests of DHOL members in Denver on Saturday night, a rally to repeal Denver’s urban camping ban ordinance took place on the steps of the City and County building prior to the regular Monday City Council meeting. Occupy Denver led the rally, while members of DHOL also spoke.

After the rally on the building’s steps, the group delivered a petition, which has more than 14,000 signatures, some from Colorado but mostly from around the world, to the City Council. City Council took a recess when the protesters entered the room. They left the petition on the dais as parts of the audience cheered.

Hyde and other members of DHOL returned to Sustainability Park after the rally on Monday night, where they await the return of their belongings.

“We sent a public letter yesterday asking for the safe return of our materials and reimbursement for things that they destroyed, but we’ll see what happens,” Hyde says. The letter asks for the materials to be returned to 2500 Lawrence St., the site they were taken from. The letter also invites DHA to dialogue with DHOL regarding Resurrection Village. They haven’t yet been given a response.

“We’re a non-violent group just trying to exist somewhere,” Hyde says. “We just want our houses back. We’re not threatening anyone, no one but the system.”