Tiny homes aren’t just for millennials anymore: Utah looking for homeless housing alternatives

At the heart of homelessness is a catastrophic loss of family.”

– Tim Stay, CEO of The Other Side Academy

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the January 2022 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

With clear blue eyes, a faint country accent and an easy-going manner, you would never expect anything out of the ordinary from Ryan. He doesn’t look old enough, or careworn enough, to be homeless. The confident young man who likes to wear his hat backwards could easily pass for a college grad who is just into his first career move.

But he’s a long-timer at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake.

Two years ago he was an oil field worker in Odessa, Texas, barely pocketing enough money to pay for housing, when suddenly he and half of his fellow workers were laid off. He had no warning, no other trade — and no backup plan.

Only in his mid-20s, he scrambled for other work but the layoff cost him his house. He moved around, scraping by, but the money he made each day was sufficient only for the hotel he took up residence in; there was nothing left over to buy groceries, or even a Happy Meal. And he definitely wasn’t happy.

Everything in life seemed too much for him and because of some choices he made, he says he wound up in jail. When he got out, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force.

Displaced, lost, hungry, alone and left with nothing, Ryan came to Utah where he says his life was saved by the Rescue Mission, and by Jesus Christ.

Countless other Utah residents face the same challenges that Ryan has. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has recently pushed forward on initiatives to help deal with the homeless situation in Utah. She is proposing a new solution that could help those who desperately need a hand up.

A tiny home village

Mendenhall is working with The Other Side Academy to create a tiny home village that would function as a community for the chronically homeless. Still in the early stages of preparation and planning, The Other Side Academy is working to get approval for plots of land to allocate for The Other Side Village.

The most recent victory for the village came on Oct. 27 when two plots of land west of the city were approved for a rezoning amendment by the Salt Lake City Planning Commission. The rezoning would reclassify the land from ‘Public Lands’ to ‘Form-based Urban Neighborhood District’ which would then allow the village to be built if the Salt Lake City Council gives final approval.

Tim Stay is the CEO of The Other Side Academy, a training school and two-year program that helps convicts, substance abusers and homeless people change their behavior to lead better lives. The average student at the academy has been arrested 25 times and 90% of them have spent time being homeless, Stay said. The program has no cost, but students who attend just need a “real conviction” to come in and make the change themselves, he said.

“We see people who have tried other programs,” Stay said. “They’re looking for something different and that’s what we can offer.”

Stay said the academy has seen positive outcomes from creating a safe, orderly environment for students. He said the crime rate has dropped every single year in the block radius surrounding the academy, which would seem unlikely when they house 100 former felons in that area.

Frederic is a homeless guest at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake. He has battled alcoholism, lost jobs and lived in and out of shelters for many years and has lost all ties with his family. (Cassidy Wixom)

“None of the crime has come from our students. Our presence has lifted up the community,” he said.

The proposed Other Side Village will be based on the community approach the academy has had success with. Stay said the idea is to create a supportive culture with the feel of a family.

Those who live in the village must have a desire to change so community members will be able to reinforce and keep each other accountable as they all progress together.

“We have known that this is something very important to Mayor Mendenhall, to address the challenge of homelessness,” Stay said. “We came to a conclusion that while we are helping the criminal and addict population (with the Academy), we weren’t doing a lot with those with significant mental health challenges also living on the street. We decided we had something we could offer: principles at the Academy could also work with the village.”

The village is made for the chronically homeless, those who have been living on the streets for a year or more. If approved, the village will have wraparound services for its members including mental health, medical and behavioral help for those with a “dual diagnosis,” meaning they have mental health challenges on top of addiction or another major problem.

According to Laurel Ingham, the development director for the Fourth Street Clinic, The Other Side Village has already been involved in early discussions with the health clinic in downtown Salt Lake where homeless people account for about 90% of all patients.

Listen to this audio recording to hear Frederic tell his story of battling alcoholism, losing his family and being homeless.

Fourth Street Clinic is a partner of The Other Side Academy already, and most likely the clinic will be involved in providing medical services for the village in conjunction with Valley Behavioral Health providing mental health services, Ingham said. Conversations are being held about these partnerships but no official decisions have been made.

“People are coming from chaotic environments. We believe we can help create something different than many other solutions to the homeless,” Stay said. While homelessness efforts have evolved to focus on just housing the homeless, Stay said The Other Side believes the solution needs to go further to be housing with wraparound services and a supportive, connected community.

“At the heart of homelessness is a catastrophic loss of family,” Stay said. Losing support from family and not having anyone to turn to is one of the biggest challenges homeless people face, but the village is meant to fix that. “That’s what we understand how to do: create a community that is healthy and clean, a prosperous community of family.

Master plan concept image of The Other Side Village. (slc.gov)

Plans for the village community include more than 400 homes about 250-400 square feet in size, with rent of $300-400 a month. Members of the village have to follow three rules: pay rent, obey civil law and obey community rules. The cost of the village will be covered by resident services in the village, run by members of the community. These will include services such as a barber shop, grocery store, nail salon and more.

BYU sophomore Kelli Rusnak is one of a group of BYU students working with The Other Side Village through The Ballard Center. Her group’s main goal is to raise awareness of the village and create a list of supporters willing to donate or help with various things in the village such as construction.

“I’ve backed a lot of organizations that the ideas are good, but I’m not passionate about how it works. But I feel like for this model, it sells itself,” Rusnak said. “It’s very clear that it will change lives and make a difference and that has driven me to keep working on it and I know it will help change lives.”

Laurie Hopkins, executive director of the private nonprofit Shelter The Homeless, said the village is “a welcome option” for those who experience homelessness.

She said the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness and Shelter The Homeless support the village concept, as it offers one more option for the homeless population, but it cannot be the only solution as it won’t help everyone. “There needs to be many options to different solutions,” she said.

Indy is a program member at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake. He is a classical violinist with big dreams once he gets out of homelessness. (Cassidy Wixom)

Chris Croswhite, executive director of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, said the village is a strategy well worth pursuing to see the long term success of tiny home complexes. Having the ongoing friendship, social community, counseling and case management will progressively help his clients become more successful, he said.

“We need as many different programs and levers to be helping people who are struggling, as many options and opportunities as we can, not have just one or two,” he said.

What does Utah’s homeless situation look like?

Shelter the Homeless, the Fourth Street Clinic, The Road Home and almost all the other homeless resources in Salt Lake County are part of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

Listen to this audio recording to hear Indy discuss playing the violin, drug addiction and his plans after he leaves the Rescue Mission.

According to Salt Lake County’s website, the coalition hopes to end homelessness by doing three things: “identifying gaps in the system,” “utilizing data, research and resources to establish creative, effective strategies to address gaps,” and “supporting, informing, and collaborating on funding; educating the public and stakeholders regarding homelessness prevention and solutions.”

The coalition acts as the umbrella organization to bring together different agencies and organizations so homeless individuals can have “a system-wide commitment of resources, services, data collection, analysis, and coordination among all stakeholders,” their website says. This includes providing housing, food, healthcare, counseling and various services and resources.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report recorded Utah having 3,131 homeless people in 2020. According to a point-in-time estimate broken down by Continuum of Care, 1,958 of them are living in Salt Lake County.

Similarly, the majority of homeless resources are located in Salt Lake County.

Michael is a guest at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake who is working to get out of homelessness. He thinks people should withhold judgement of homeless people and be more compassionate and helpful rather than casting them aside. (Cassidy Wixom)

Utah ranks 33rd in the country on the total number of homeless in 2020, but 5th overall for largest percentage change of homelessness from 2019-2020 with an 11.9% increase, according to data from the point-in-time estimates by state.

According to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, approximately 77.5% of the homeless population in Utah is sheltered. Croswhite said there are a couple hundred homeless people choosing to camp along the Wasatch Front because they either don’t trust the shelters, don’t want to follow the rules of the shelters or don’t feel comfortable living in a communal environment.

“Some homeless friends say ‘why would I go to the Rescue Mission when people give me stuff’ and they don’t need to worry about it,” Croswhite said. “When they move, they don’t take possessions with them and just walk somewhere else and get handed everything they need. That has shifted to they aren’t being helped, but enabled.”

Listen to this audio recording to hear Michael talk about being homeless, the judgment he feels and what society could do better.

Croswhite said the incentive of living in a shelter increases when it is harder for a homeless person to camp. Especially with the cold weather and police breaking up tent cities more often, Croswhite said the hope is eventually homeless people will start making the change and have a desire to improve and stay in the shelters.

The ‘housing first’ approach

Shelter the Homeless focuses on emergency shelter for individuals, then supporting people to get out of emergency shelter and into better housing, Hopkins said. She said they take a lot of the work from inside the homeless resource centers out to the unsheltered as well, but “in the end, connecting with services is their choice.”

The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake provides emergency shelter for homeless individuals and runs a program to help people get back on their feet and out into society again. (Cassidy Wixom)

The Road Home is one such shelter that provides emergency housing for people who don’t have a safe location to stay. Executive Director Michelle Flynn said all of the emergency housing shelters operate off the basic philosophy of getting people stably housed.

“We make sure that is accessible and available, that is the start to sustainability,” she said. “We keep people safe and connected with us to achieve their goal of housing.”

She said all of the services they provide are housing focused but by meeting with individuals to understand where their goals are they can help them rebuild the network of support they lost.

Flynn said long term, over 80% of people in the shelters are from Utah. Homelessness in Utah has grown, she said, because the cost of housing has skyrocketed, making it harder for those working minimum wage to keep up with expenses.

While getting people stably housed is a great first step, Croswhite said the housing first approach many shelters take is not the “silver bullet” or “cure” for homelessness.

“I think it’s a component of homelessness, but if all we are doing is giving people housing, we aren’t addressing the real issue which is why did the person become homeless?” he said.

Having some housing first resources is important, Croswhite said, but further resources are needed. “Our philosophy at the Rescue Mission is to address the cause of it, address housing and employment and treat the whole person, not simply just give them housing,” he said.

The Other Side Village hopes to also treat the whole person and help individuals make lifelong changes, Stay said.

COVID-19’s effect on an already vulnerable population

A homeless man gets the COVID-19 vaccine from a Fourth Street Clinic worker. (Courtesy of the Fourth Street Clinic)

At the beginning of the pandemic when little information was available on the virus, how it spread and who was in danger, it was a frightening time for all, Flynn said.

“We have seen the effect on the community as a whole, and it was magnified times 100 for the homeless,” she said.

Hopkins said the shelters owned by Shelter the Homeless are typically filled to 90% capacity every night, so when COVID-19 became a public health emergency, they had to quickly adjust operations to make their congregate facilities as safe as possible.

“It was quite the situation as you can imagine,” Hopkins said.

A homeless woman flinches as she gets the COVID-19 vaccine. (Courtesy of the Fourth Street Clinic)

Hopkins said that in their shelters, they tracked the cases very closely and actually ended up with a rate of infection lower than the rate of the community at large.

Across the shelters and service providers, there were mass amounts of testing, mask mandates, increased sanitary and distancing protocols, a county quarantine overflow shelter that provided meals and health care and a push for vaccination once it was available.

Ingham said the vaccination rate of the Utah homeless population is only about 25%. She said the Fourth Street Clinic has offered incentives and tried to educate them on the importance of keeping the community healthy through vaccination.

“I think we have all learned over the last 19 months that our health is the most important thing,” she said. Providing that care when everyone else is turning the homeless people away is vital in closing that gap in service, she said.

A little boy and his sister play around the room as they join their mom for a doctor’s visit at the Fourth Street Clinic. (Courtesy of the Fourth Street Clinic)

As government programs end, people who lost their jobs in the pandemic or decided to not return to work because of government stimuluses will start facing risks of homelessness as landlords start evicting tenants for lack of payment, Croswhite said.

The stress factor of losing jobs or housing can also increase addiction tendency, he said, leading to further risk of homelessness.

“In that aspect, when government services are taken away, then homelessness and the effects of COVID will have a lingering effect for the next several years,” he said.

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