Take it or leave it, here is my “best practices” recommendation to church starters and established pastors everywhere: start a tiny home village with and for people experiencing homelessness. That is what our congregation, Beloved Community Mennonite Church, in Denver, Colorado chose to do last November, and it has made all the difference in the life our community during the first half of 2017.
A brief history of mass homelessness
In Denver, where I live, we have what some would call, “a homelessness problem.” Mass homelessness leaves thousands of people living out on the street each night in a city where summer temperatures reach the upper 90s, and winter temperatures can dive down below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. A point in time survey in January 2016 revealed that nearly 6,000 people were homeless on a single night, but most guess that the real number is at least 2 or 2.5 times that many.
Homeless people did not cause mass homelessness, we brought that upon ourselves in this country through massive cuts to the federal housing budget in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s which have never been replaced. Around that time, we decided that instead of investing federal dollars in housing, we would prefer to invest charitable dollars in a new invention called an emergency homeless shelter. Instead of building federal infrastructure that would ensure that everyone had access to the human right of housing, we chose to create a band-aid solution that would support poor people in their utter poverty, rather than find a collective way to pull them out of that poverty.
Denver, like most of our country has seen a rapid increase in the cost of housing since the end of the great recession. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NILHC), the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the Denver metro area has soared to nearly $1100. Federal housing policy suggests that an individual’s housing costs should not exceed 30% of their income, therefore, in order to afford the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Denver, an individual would need to earn $19.83 per hour working a forty hour work week, or would need to clock 85 hours per week working a minimum wage job.
In spite of the tremendous costs of housing, we do not have enough low-income units available. The NLIHC reports that for every 100 housing units needed for households that live at or below the federal poverty level, only 24 units are available in the Denver metro area. Instead of subsidizing housing at the lower end of the economic spectrum, we have chosen to subsidize housing at the upper end of that spectrum through the federal Mortgage Interest Deduction. The result is that we have created an all or nothing housing system, where folks make it in the middle class, or wind up on the streets, there is no in between.
Instead of investing public dollars in housing and strengthening the entire community across the economic spectrum, cities like Denver have chosen harmful policy solutions like “sit-lie ordinances” or “urban camping bans,” which criminalize the behaviors of those whom our economic system has forced to the streets. Cities like Denver have seen that the people with the least access to power in our society are those who have been forced to survive in public space, and so politicians in those cities have chosen to strip those people of their rights with little political risk.
That is, until those people whose rights were being violated began to organize, and that organizing began to catch the attention of the broader public. In 2013, following the passing of Denver’s urban camping ban, the grassroots community organizing group, Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL) formed to work with and for people who experience homelessness to help protect and advocate for dignity, rights and choices for people on the streets. Over the last several years, that organizing work has drawn greater attention to the struggle of those who survive in public space. Through their grassroots work, DHOL quickly began advocating for the creation of self-governed tiny home villages as an affordable, easy to build, dignified alternative to shelters and supportive housing units.
Beloved Community’s involvement
In May of 2016, after years of organizing, DHOL successfully worked with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado to convene a broader advocacy coalition called the Alternative Solutions Advocacy Project. ASAP is a group of business leaders, social service providers, advocates, faith leaders, and people experiencing homelessness who came together to develop a broad campaign to call for an end to the criminalization of homelessness and advocate for alternative housing solutions like tiny home villages.
In November of 2016, a bad month for people everywhere, the Urban Land Conservancy stepped forward with some good news as they approached that broad coalition, and said, “We have land that you can use to build a tiny home village, if you’ll coordinate it.” That broad coalition decided that it was most appropriate to give the task of coordinating those efforts over to a faith community, and when approached with the opportunity, our church quickly said, “Yes.”
At that point, we weren’t agreeing to fund the project, or provide entirely for the needs of the villagers, we were just committing to walk hand in hand with people from the streets and join them in their struggle for housing. For us, that walk meant that we operated out of our core capacity as a faith community to build relationships across barriers where those relationships had been broken down, that we used our ears to listen to the struggle of the marginalized, and used our voices to speak honestly and authentically to those in power.
Practically, our commitment meant that we devoted staff time to attend and facilitate meetings; select future villagers; speak with city officials; submit paperwork; raise funds, work alongside of an architect, a construction company, and over 400 volunteer builders; and help villagers move in to their new homes in Denver’s first tiny home village, the Beloved Community Village!
Revisiting that best practices recommendation…
That probably sounds like a lot of work, and the reality is that it was a lot of work! But, one of the aspects that has made this project so unique is that it is a project that none of us have done alone. No single organization or individual has owned this effort. We have worked together with a broad coalition of partners that have lightened the load of this work, and even launched a collaborative organization to further develop this movement.
So, to revisit my initial best practices recommendation, perhaps starting a tiny home village with and for people experiencing homelessness is not the next move for your church start or established congregation. But in these days of shrinking church membership, and religious affiliation as a whole, we have to be wondering what is next for our congregations, and I would submit to you that the next thing is to become involved in the social struggles of our day.
What is necessary in our times is not some form of quietism that insists on such a separation of powers that the church has nothing to say to the broader social order, but a form of resistance wherein the church assumes her proper role of standing in solidarity with those on the margins, joining the oppressed in the depths of their struggle, and working together towards liberty and justice for all.
So get outside of the four walls of your office, and get outside of the constant internal conversations with your congregation. Get on the ground. Get out there with the people. Join the movement of the streets, and breathe in the wind of the Spirit that is blowing in these days, because that wind that is blowing is the wind of freedom.