In Denver, it takes a tiny house village to combat homelessness

The year-old Beloved Community Village is a pilot program to demonstrate that tiny homes should be a part of Denver's plan to tackle homelessness. A recent University of Denver study shows that the village has improved the lives of both its residents and people living in the surrounding community.

AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/AP
Freddie Martin opens the door to his home in the Beloved Community Village in Denver on July 24, 2018. Beloved Community Village consists of 11 tiny homes built to accommodate homeless people and get them on the path to permanent housing.

From the start, supporters have hoped Beloved Community Village would help people beyond the 13 residents who moved off Denver's streets and into its 8-foot-by-12-foot tiny homes last July.

The village, 11 homes, a bathhouse, two portable toilets, and a circular common building bounded by a brightly decorated chain-link fence, was meant to be a pioneer. It's a pilot project designed to demonstrate tiny homes, arranged in a community where rules are set by the residents themselves, should be part of the solution to combating homelessness in Denver.

It's had its challenges. Two of the original residents returned to the streets after their neighbors asked them to leave for violating village rules. The village had to move about 200 feet in January – from one side of its lot to the other – at a cost of $25,000 because of now-changed city rules governing temporary residential structures. The city chipped in $10,000.

But Beloved has persevered. A year after opening, supporters are touting the results of a University of Denver (DU) study of the village as proof it is improving lives, both for its residents who were chronically homeless and in the surrounding community.

"Unfortunately, the residents here have had to be the guinea pigs, but they have helped us sort out some of the issues that will help improve the model as we scale into the future," Cole Chandler, a member of the Colorado Village Collaborative, said. "We intend to see dozens of these villages across the metro area."

The study assessed the village from its opening on July 21, 2017, through April. 

Of the 12 original village residents who participated in the study – one person declined – 10 remained housed through April. It goes beyond the scope of the study, but those 10 people are still in stable housing today, Mr. Chandler said,

Three residents moved out of the village into housing of their own. Two of them, a couple, saved up for their own apartment, Chandler said. A third person was approved for Section 8 rental assistance.

And all villagers – nine of whom were already working when they moved in – were either employed, in school, or collecting disability, as of April. That fact also holds true today.

There were 5,317 people experiencing homelessness in Denver and seven surrounding counties in January, according to a point-in-time report compiled by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. For Chandler, whose organization was created to help establish and support tiny home villages in Denver, the study demonstrates that more communities like Beloved should be built in the metro area and soon.

"The idea was to build low-barrier housing for people with barriers to accessing the existing system" he said, noting each tiny home cost $22,000 to build. "With traditional housing-first scenarios, there are a lot of overhead costs with all of the support systems that they create, which are very helpful for a large portion of the population. We can do things at a lower cost."

The study was performed by the DU's Burns Center on Poverty and Homelessness. It was commissioned by the Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise, also a part of DU. The institute has invested a combined $91,725 in building and assessing the Beloved village and a proposed second village that Chandler's group is seeking to build in Denver, director Rebecca Arno said.

Ms. Arno suspects the village's self-governing model, with residents setting guidelines for behavior and other aspects of community life, has empowered the people living there.

Cersilla Wolf, one of the village's charter members, has enrolled in college classes, opened an shop selling her own crocheted wares, and began working at nearby Bigsby's Folly Winery & Restaurant, which reached out to the Colorado Village Collaborative about hiring a villager.

Ms. Wolf also has taken on the mantle of resident finder. She built a second, lofted bed into her home, and brought in two other people struggling to find stable housing to live with her.

Freddie Martin has been Wolf's roommate since March after meeting her on the Metro State University campus. A history major who takes notes during village meetings to "create a historical record," Mr. Martin said he hasn't had a secure home in about a decade. He's paid rent to live with friends but hasn't been able to raise the money – including a security deposit and first and last month's rent – to move out on his own. Now housed, he hopes to finish his degree in the fall.

"This place has been a godsend," Martin said.

Wolf's first roommate, Kim Grier, lives next door now. The 27-year-old is trying to get a photography business off the ground while working at King Soopers.

"When I got this house, this was the first place I ever had to live that wasn't dependent on my emotional relationship with another person," she said. "It's a place that's yours, where you can think."

The DU study also examined the village's impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Combining responses from a random sampling of nearby residents and a selective sampling of business owners, researchers found 78 percent of people in the area believe the village either didn't hurt community safety or helped it – a perception supported by crime data.

"Even the people who at the beginning of this process told me this will never work, this will be a disaster, have come back and said, 'Wow, were we wrong,' " said River North Art District president Jamie Giellis. "It's been awesome."

The Village won't be behind its colorful fence at 38th and Blake much longer. Chandler said an agreement is in place with a new property owner host, but he's not ready to say where until more community outreach can be done. Colorado Village Collaborative hopes to raise $90,000 for a new commons building for the village when it does move, one with running water, three bathrooms, and a full kitchen.

Urban Land Conservancy, the nonprofit that owns the land Beloved sits on today, is moving forward with plans to develop the lot. The Walnut Street side will be turned into 66 affordable apartments in partnership with Medici Communities, conservancy president Aaron Miripol said. The Blake Street half will be sold to local developer McWhinney, which expects to build a 16-story mixed-use building that will also house Urban Land Conservancy's office.

Colorado Village Collaborative was dealt a setback this month when Denver's Landmark Preservation Commission voted that it could not proceed with building an eight-home women's village on the property of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church at 2015 Glenarm Place because it didn't fit with the surrounding historic district.

The vote was a temporary setback in Chandler's view. He plans to meet next week with another property owner who he says has offered to host the women's village for three years. He hopes to get it built before winter.

Mr. Miripol, who has been involved with efforts to provide stable housing for people in need for decades, said he has been frustrated by the barriers that have cropped up and prevented the tiny home concept from growing in Denver and beyond. He hopes the results of the DU study will help turn the tide.

"You can have a successful community like this. You can have an impact on people's lives and you can do it in a way that is not harming the community, but in fact is very positive," he said. "It's important other folks step up and do this too."

This story was reported by The Denver Post. 

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