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Tom Barton: ‘Tiny ‘houses could make huge differences in solving homelessness

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They’re called “tiny houses” for a reason. These structures, which look more like storage or tool sheds you might put in your backyard, will soon replace tents and tarps as the shelter of choice for Savannah’s homeless population. They are small — about 128 square feet of living space each. But don’t confuse “tiny” with “miniature” or cramped.

This isn’t a doll house or a kid’s backyard clubhouse. After touring a model “tiny house” that’s on display in the parking lot outside the Savannah Baptist Center at 704 Wheaton St., I would rate this “tiny house” as surprisingly spacious and amazingly functional and efficient. I’m half-shocked that Ikea doesn’t sell one, because I could one day see myself buying one and sticking it in the backyard as a perfect place for house guests and relatives who overstay their welcomes or as private getaway.

The word “mancave” comes to mind. This model tiny house features most of the comforts of a larger home: a comfortable built-in bed, a roomy shower stall with hot and cold running water (It uses a tankless hot water system), a toilet, two sinks, a refrigerator, microwave, coffee pot and hot plate. There’s even a combination heater/air conditioning unit. The windows crank open to provide ventilation and fresh air, and the 11-foot-high peaked ceiling has room for a ceiling fan. The floor and kitchen counter are tiled.

Move this tiny house to an empty lot near the beach or in the Georgia mountains, and I would be set. I could easily live in it for a few days and not miss anything other than a big mortgage or rent payment.

These spiffy tiny houses, which feature Hardiplank siding and metal roofs and cost about $6,900, may not make the cover of House Beautiful, but there is great beauty in them when it comes to the form and function.

An immediate and obvious observation is that living in a tiny house like this one beats sleeping in the dirt in the woods or under a Truman Parkway overpass or worse, under the Bay Street Viaduct, one of the most vile places I’ve ever seen or smelled, even when compared to some slums I’ve seen in Third World countries or rest areas along the New Jersey Turnpike.

The “tiny house” concept, which has been taking off in other parts of the country, may be an idea whose time has come, not just for homeless people but anyone looking for affordable and sufficient living space. Just how many bathrooms and bedrooms does the average person need? In fact, given the cost of housing, according to the Trulia real estate website, the median sale price for a home in Savannah for the three months that ended Feb. 24, was $192,000. Placed in the right location, one of these $6,900“tiny houses” might be an attractive alternative for a budget-minded person who’s looking for housing, assuming that person is a minimalist and isn’t a chow hound who requires a 26-cubic-feet, side-by-side refrigerator.

The Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless and its hard-working and creative executive director Cindy Kelley, should be saluted for bringing the “tiny houses” concept to this area with the difficult goal of providing cleaner, safer living options for the estimated 4,000 homeless people in our area, including an estimated 285 homeless veterans. The fact that so many vets who served this nation are living in squalid conditions in homeless camps tucked away in remote wooded areas that surround Savannah’s downtown, is a national and local disgrace. Why can’t veterans be moved to the top of the waiting lists for apartments in the city’s many public housing projects? They’ve earned it, unlike those who have lived off government handouts. Many of these homeless camps remain invisible to Savannahians. But many of the people who live in them can be seen every day downtown, scrounging for money and food or things they might need and occasionally grabbing some shuteye on a park bench, in the library, or in an out-of-the-way alcove.

Yes, city officials have cleared out some of the homeless camps just east of downtown to make room for road improvements to East President Street. But these camps didn’t just vanish. People have to live somewhere. Many homeless people have simply moved deeper into the woods away from the prying eyes of the law and society.

Kelley knows where they are. On Wednesday afternoon last week, she led a tour of one of the camp sites that the homeless authority purchased as a site for its first “tiny house” village. I was part of the tour group, which included Recorder’s Court Judge Claire Cornwell Williams and two Chatham County Sheriff’s Department deputies for security. As it turned out, the armed posse wasn’t necessary. The only person who seemed to be at home at this camp was an older, grizzled African-American man in a blue cap and blue work clothes who wanted to complain about a fellow camper who was dumping his trash too close to blue cap’s tent. I don’t blame him for being steamed. It’s tough enough to keep a clean campsite without having a jerky neighbor toss his whiskey bottles, beer cans and other garbage in your space.

You can’t see this heavily wooded 3-acre site, which Kelley said formerly housed a cotton mill, from the street. It’s a block north of Wheaton Street just east of Liberty Street and flanked by the horse stables, Blackshear Homes and railroad tracks. Just across the tracks is another homeless camp. But after a 5-minute walk down a well-worn path from the street you stumble upon several makeshift tents. In this case, this site’s isolation is a blessing. How many property owners want a village of homeless people living next door? Fortunately, there were no NIMBY reactions to the authority’s plans for this site, a credit to Saffold Properties, the site’s former owners, and neighbors.

Kelley’s plans as presented to City Council include putting up to about 60 tiny houses on this property. The first 12 structures would be reserved for homeless vets. The structures are being built by soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart. A nice touch.

Kelley said homeless people who live in these houses will be expected to pay rent of about $200 a month, which includes utilities. What many people don’t know is that some homeless people have regular income: disability or Social Security or other benefit checks. Using some of this income to rent a tiny house should make the tiny houses program more like a privilege and less like an entitlement that will be taken for granted, and potentially trashed. In fact, Kelley said tiny house tenants can expect monthly walk-though inspections to make sure basic rules of cleanliness and hygiene are followed.

“Part of what we want to do is to teach homeless people how to live in a community,” Kelley said. “That’s something we’ve all learned. We’re going to have expectations,too.”

Each unit will come with an outdoor picnic table and the individual villages will have a communal outdoor grill, she said. One short-term issue that will have to be addressed is city trash pickup. This citywide service is subsidized by its users, not through city taxes. Let’s hope Mayor Eddie DeLoach and City Council can help arrange for regular trash pickup, as these tiny house villages are addressing a long-neglected public problem.

A longer-term question has to do with expectations: If you make life too comfortable for homeless people here, will they become a magnet that attracts more homeless to Savannah making things worse? Judge Williams said she heard a story about a bus load of homeless people recently being dumped here from Jacksonville, Fla. And if you make life too easy by providing tiny houses, does that mean less incentive for homeless people to change their lives and get off the streets?

Until now, posing such a question was unnecessary. Sleeping in the rain on the cold hard ground with fellow campers who would never be mistaken for Boy Scouts was a harsh reality that no sane and sober person would choose. But credit Kelley and the homeless authority for stepping up and making Savannah a kinder, gentler and more humane community. These tiny homes have the potential to make a huge difference.

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. [email protected]

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