WHERE THE HOMELESS SHOULD GO: Tiny Houses, Church Sites, and Civil Obligation Reply

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For the last three days I have been in Seattle Washington exploring with a group of scholars, civil leaders, and non-profit agency workers and volunteers ways to solve homelessness.  I thought I would take a few minutes to write about homelessness where I live in Savannah.

Savannah Georgia has a dramatically large homeless population compared to its population.   According to annual counts by the homeless authority, the number of homeless in Savannah has risen every year for the last three years, most recently up to more than 4600 homeless residents.  There are a number of factors that lead to the rise of homelessness — many of which are systematic and reflect our preferences for single family housing options, tourist occupants, and our disdain for public programs that seek to mitigate the underlying issues leading to homelessness.

One of the more visible projects that has emerged in recent years is the Tiny Homes Project for Veterans.   These homes cost $10,000 to construct, and provide a place for autonomy and privacy for residents.  Early plans for the Tiny Homes Project vacillated between excitement to do something concrete about the homelessness problem in our community and fears about where these houses would be located.  Indeed, several sites that seemed promising and had political support from City Counsel Members suddenly evaporated under a cloud of NIMBYISM (Not in My Back Yard) and questions about the desirability of small housing in communities.

Challenges of Places for Homeless Homes

Some of the many challenges for finding places for non traditional homes for the homeless is how do these places interact with housing codes and ordinary enforcement.  The practical quagmire of local regulations that were built to exclude homes for those other than single families makes building tiny homes in communities a challenge. But communities are exactly what homelessness needs.   In fact, the proliferation of large homeless camps throughout the city is specifically in response to the lack of community these people experience elsewhere.  Community is a survival skill and is necessary for human resilience.

What the homeless camps provide in the form of community and survival, they sacrifice in the realm of healthy living conditions, privacy, and autonomy.   The lack of shelter multiplies the hurdles that the homeless have.  If your perspective is that the homeless should have jobs, then what address do they put on job applications when they apply?  Tent three under the Truman Bridge?  And would you hire that person?

Sleeping rough (the phrase used to refer to homeless camp living) presents challenges for people who have healthcare needs that end up costing the system more dollars.  When the temperature goes over 98 degrees or under 30 degrees, many medications lose effectiveness or simply go bad.  Wet conditions are dire for both medicines, wounds, and general wellness.  And life in a tent is simply no substitute for structures and stability.

Churches can be the Change for our Community.

Now imagine if we could make a significant impact on the way homeless people live and survive (and give them tools to move into more traditional stable housing) by using space we already have available.  I am talking about church lands.

Our churches have thousands of acres of land across our city that is unused during most of the week.  Now imagine that churches sponsored tiny home villages of six to twelve tiny houses on their land.   Instead of living in large homeless camps as refugees, homeless persons are immediately brought into a community.  This is not such a radical idea and would solve many issues that the Tiny Homes Project faced early on in its launch.

First, Churches have a Right to provide sanctuary as an exercise of its religious beliefs.  Federal legislation called RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act) allows faith based groups to exercise their religious beliefs unabated by local land use restraints unless there is a compelling state interest that is necessary to prevent their doing so. (Its highly likely that human sacrifice stations would not be lawful under RLUIPA, but its very tolerating of religious land use).  Some of the benefits of doing so:

  • Creating lower density occupations for individuals
  • Infusing supportive communities into homeless communities
  • Access to already built facilities that enable dignity and autonomy

Churches it seems to me have an opportunity to express their faith in meaningful ways.  They may even have an obligation to do so, depending on their theology.  Just imagine the community we can build if we open the doors to our spaces and allow the alien, the widow, and the orphan to come inside.

In an era where housing is the greatest humanity crisis our country faces, the inevitable fact is that great societies learn how to share or they cease to be great societies.  I hope the churches in our community will lead the charge in teaching our society how to share again.

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