Homeless Advocates Pitch Tiny Houses for Bozeman

Bozeman Daily Chronicle article by Eric Dietrich Chronicle Staff Writer
Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

MSU School of Architecture: A conceptual rendering for a potential village of tiny homes to serve homeless Bozeman residents. The effort supporters are currently fundraising and looking for a site for the project.

Could a collection of tiny home-style units, clustered into a village with on-site social workers, help Bozeman get a handle on homelessness?

It’s worth trying, say advocates with St. James Episcopal church and social service agency HRDC.

Connie Campbell-Pearson, a deacon with St. James, said she came up with the idea after seeing a story about a tiny homes project in Detroit last summer. Intrigued, she mentioned the idea to her congregation, heard some interest there and headed to the city planning office.

City planners, in turn, put her in touch with Montana State architecture professor Ralph Johnson, who, as it turned out, had a class of graduate students interested in looking at tiny homes.
Fast forward to this winter, and Johnson’s students have drawn up a concept tailored to the needs of homeless Bozemanites — a modest 160 square feet, just enough space for a bed, toilet, shower and mini-fridge.

With a $10,000 price tag, each of the units could provide secure living space for a resident who’d otherwise be on the streets or bouncing in and out of Bozeman’s HRDC-operated seasonal warming center.

The plan is to group the units into a sort of village, including communal space and room for an on-site manager. The village concept would also accommodate support services like mental health and addiction counseling.

The “housing first village,” said HRDC housing director Sara Savage, would serve as transitional housing, a sort of intermediate step between the emergency housing provided by the warming shelter and permanent accommodations like a modest apartment.

Its occupants would be primarily longtime local residents who’ve struggled with housing, Savage said, folks who are currently warming center regulars.

The “housing first” model for addressing homelessness, a newer wave of thinking in social work, contends that providing the chronically homeless with housing is more cost-effective than traditional shelter models — or simply ignoring the issue until homeless people end up in emergency rooms or jails.

Even if providing housing is expensive, the reasoning goes, the societal costs of ER visits and jail stints add up, with an average chronically homeless person costing their community, by some estimates, as much as $40,000 a year in services.

When you’re dealing with the day-to-day ordeal of living on the streets, the logic goes, it’s often an insurmountable hurdle to get on top of mental health issues or substance abuse struggles. Instead, housing first advocates say, it’s more practical to start by giving someone a place to live, then providing support as they work their way toward stability.

“This is a population we’re struggling to serve effectively,” Savage said. “Right now, folks aren’t able to take that leap out of homelessness.”

The housing first village effort is still looking for a location — they’re hoping to find a piece of land that can be leased from the city for a nominal sum — but is otherwise gathering steam.

I-Ho’s Korean Grill, run by Bozeman City Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy, will hold a fundraiser Sunday, for example, donating its proceeds to the effort between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Campbell-Pearson is also reaching out to other parts of Bozeman’s faith community, hoping to gather donations and support.

“I’m just saying to all of the churches, ‘Put your money where your mouth is here,’” she said.

Additionally, Johnson’s architecture students are continuing their work, sketching out a potential site plan, developing construction plans and working with the city on permitting. This summer, he said, they’re hoping to build a demonstration unit on campus.

If all goes smoothly, Campbell-Pearson and Savage said, they could get something ready for occupants as soon as this fall.

“Our goal right now is to say ‘Why not?’” Savage said. “Why not here? Why not this year?”