More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year and although Memphis’ homeless population seems to be slowly declining, the problem is far from solved. According to most recent studies, there are approximately 2,000 people who are homeless in Memphis on any given day and the fiscal cost of homelessness for communities is significant.
There is a strong link between affordable housing and homelessness and shortages of low-income housing continues to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the US that earn “extremely low income,” there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Each of these low-income housing units typically cost anywhere from $100,000 to 200,000 a unit, depending on where you are located in the country. Although Memphis has increased the permanent supportive housing supply, it isn’t nearly enough to reach the goal of ending homelessness by 2017.
I fully support the Housing First philosophy, which is relatively recent innovation in human service programs and social policy regarding treatment of the homeless and is an alternative to a system of emergency shelter or transitional housing progressions. Rather than moving homeless individuals through different stages of housing, moving them closer to independent living, Housing First moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or shelters into their own living spaces.
This philosophy approaches homelessness based on the concept that the first and primary need is to obtain stable housing and other issues can be addressed once housing is obtained. Other programs operate on a model of housing readiness, requiring the individuals to address the issues that may have led them into homelessness before providing them with stable housing.
The Housing First model has been remarkably successful in ending chronic homelessness, and since its inception, housing retention rates have remained at 85-90 percent, even among individuals who have not succeeded in other programs.
It has also proven to be extremely cost-effective, especially by reducing costs associated with homeless individuals’ higher utilization of emergency services such as emergency rooms, police and ambulance response, and jail stays. Utah implemented this model in 2005 and has since decreased overall homelessness by 72 percent and has virtually eliminated veteran homelessness.
Using the Housing First philosophy, I would like to see Memphis begin a Tiny Homes for Homeless Project, using a combination of the money given to our city each year by the federal government and donations from private businesses, as well as potentially collaborating with several non-profits.
Last year, Portland, Oregon approved plans to utilize public land in order to construct tiny homes for homeless and low-income residents and similar projects have been successful in New York, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Texas communities. Other areas have rented land from private investors for $1 a month.
The idea behind my Tiny Homes for Homeless initiative isn’t to provide a permanent housing community for Memphis’ homeless but rather a stepping-stone to transitioning back into society and having a home themselves. Before people can get back on their feet and take advantage of job training and drug and alcohol counseling as well as counseling for PTSD, they need a place to live.
These Tiny Home communities would function as villages with communal bathrooms, kitchen and laundry facilities, common houses, garden beds, and potentially even a chicken coop. By partnering with outreach ministries and non-profit organizations, like Literacy Mid-south, the Tiny Home communities could provide on-site supportive services such as assistance with reading, writing, employment, activities, and daily living. On-site services have been proven to make residents feel more comfortable and increase participation.
With the retail cost ranging from $10,000 to $12,000 to build each tiny house, imagine the communities we could build and the supportive services we could provide with the nearly $7 million in federal grants Memphis received this year alone!