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Microhouses for the homeless a solution in search of property

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From page A1 | April 02, 2012 |

“Awesome” looks a little like an enclosed go-cart, but the microhouse behind Rene Evans’ house is the seed for an idea. The idea is to provide interim housing for homeless single people — getting them off the street and giving them a safe place from which to launch a different life.

“This is an idea that’s working in other places, ” said Rene Evans, director of the Community Resource Center (CRC), a triage center in Placerville for the homeless and families in transition. “Homeless families with children usually can get interim or traditional housing, but single people with pets have a harder time.”

Microhouses come in a variety of styles and materials, but “Awesome” is weatherproof and  large enough for a 6-foot person and a pet, with a drop-down table, a window, ventilation and shelving. It’s also lockable, providing a measure of security for belongings — something that doesn’t exist in a tent.

“We aren’t planning to use microhouses during the winter when shelters are available, ” said Evans, “but when the shelters are closed, these will be a safe alternative to the tents. We wanted to get something for people with more security and coverage.”

The houses are more expensive than the tents, tarps and sleeping bags the CRC hands out to the homeless at a cost of about $150 per person each season. “But the tents and bags only last one season,” said Evans, “The microhouses will last for much longer.”

Evans bought “Awesome” from Nevada City where City Councilwoman Reinette Senum rounded up 80 volunteers to build 40 microhouses in a single day to help the growing homeless population.

Hands 4 Hope, a local youth-driven outreach foundation, has committed to helping build the houses in El Dorado County and Evans plans to have the recipients help build 10 more.

“We want to start out with 10 houses and put them in a legal encampment, “said Evans. “We want to start stabilizing lives — something you can’t do in a shelter when you change locations each night.” The houses would be grouped around a common area with portable bathrooms and electricity. A time-limit would be established for inhabitants as incentive to get jobs or go back to school and transition out.

The houses are the seed, but for the project to grow, land is needed for  their location —like the Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., which has evolved into a legal encampment with some 60 inhabitants in microhouses who have created a set of bylaws to govern behavior in the camp.

“It’s not going to be a free-for-all,” said Lisa Whittaker, guest coordinator for CRC and leader of Citizens in Transition, an organization of locally homeless people determined to change the image of the homeless in El Dorado County. “A council of the inhabitants will draw up bylaws for the encampment. We have some very capable people.”

Placerville Vice Mayor Wendy Mattson said, “I’ve been working with Citizens in Transition for about six months and they are adamant about being good citizens and governing themselves.”

Placerville Police Chief George Nielsen supports the microhouse idea.

“I would prefer a  year-around shelter, but that won’ t happen in the near future,” Nielsen said. “This is, overall, a good idea. As an alternative form of transitional housing it is better than what we have now, which is nothing. Before we had the winter shelters, people just freelanced and camped in any open space. To have a consolidated encampment that’s organized would help with public safety issues and keep people from using private property or the parks.”

“The CRC has been a big help to us,” said Nielsen,”and basically the houses are a good thing. The hurdle we are struggling with is where can we put it. Where does it work best?” It’s a question that Nevada City and Grass Valley are looking for the answer to as well.

“We’ve been talking to the city and working with them, the police, the county and the faith-based organizations to get permission for the legal encampment and a place to locate it,” said Evans. “The city and the police have been amazing partners and the CRC has gotten incredible help from the El Dorado Community Foundation.”

“The microhouses are a great first step in creative solutions to this complex problem,” said Mattson, who has been involved with seeking solutions to the homeless situation that work for the entire community. “Any solution must be multi-tiered and multi-faceted. A year-around shelter with services to support and lift people out of homeless is the ideal, but this is doable — a program we can get up and running quickly.”

“Once we identify a place for the encampment then the support services from our community that provide food, clothing and things like AA meetings can be centralized. Even if we had a year-around shelter, there will always be people who don’t want to live in a shelter and  then the microhouses can offer a place for them to keep them off the streets and out of the parks.”

For more information about the Community Resource Center, the microhouse program, how to help or how to donate for microhouse building materials, visit the Website at edcrc.org or call 530-344-1864.

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Wendy Schultz

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