Earlier this month, when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled his long-anticipated plan to use a plot of vacant land on Sand Island to house homeless people, he did it with a little twist.
Instead of opening a tent-based homeless encampment, as he originally envisioned, Caldwell announced that the city would build a “modular” facility using up to 25 “modified shipping containers” to temporarily house 75 to 100 people.
The new plan was inspired by an effort underway in Eugene, Oregon, where a group of activists from the Occupy movement helped build a collection of tiny homes — each about 8 feet by 8 feet — to form a micro-community for the city’s homeless population two years ago.
The community, known as Opportunity Village Eugene, has been hailed as a success, and its innovative approach in tackling homelessness has been highlighted by the likes of The Guardian newspaper and The Atlantic magazine.
Caldwell is betting that his plan will lead to a similar success.
Caldwell says the Sand Island facility — dubbed “Hale Mauliola” after the Hawaiian goddess of health — will be a place of refuge for those who are displaced by the city’s “sit-lie” ban — a series of ordinances passed by the Honolulu City Council that prohibit people from sitting or lying on the city’s busiest sidewalks.
At a press conference he held on Sand Island, Caldwell told reporters that the facility was the missing “compassionate” part of his “compassionate disruption” program.
“We feel that the model can prove successful if we’re given the opportunity to build something from the ground up.” — Brandon Hardin, Tiny Pacific Houses
“Since I became the mayor … we’ve been pretty effective in terms of disruption. We’re going to continue our enforcement actions, and it’s disruptive. I wish we didn’t have to do it,” Caldwell said. “I’m hoping that this place will allow the homeless to avoid disruption until they find a more permanent place to live.”
But some homeless advocates don’t share the mayor’s optimism.
For one thing, they say, the plan’s blueprint has no mechanism ensuring that the facility will be operated based on Opportunity Village’s model; instead, the contractor for providing supportive services will have wide discretion in deciding how the facility is run.
Jenny Lee, staff attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says the facility could end up functioning just like another emergency shelter — and go unused by many of those affected by the sit-lie ban.
“We need to understand the reasons why, with the sit-lie being enforced, people aren’t going to shelters — and what about the Sand Island proposal that’s different in addressing the reasons that they are not going,” Lee said. “Articulating those reasons is important for policy makers in order to be confident that they are trying something that’s substantively different.”
In recent years, the idea of establishing communities for homeless people, similar to Opportunity Village, has gained traction across the country — particularly in the Pacific Northwest.
There’s Dignity Village on the outskirts of Portland; Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington; and Village of Hope in Fresno, California. And more are being planned: Second Wind Cottages in Newfield, New York; Community First! Village in Austin, Texas; and OM Village in Madison, Wisconsin.
They all tap into the main current of the so-called “Tiny-House Movement,” popular among alternative lifestyle experimentalists — and, increasingly, among middle-class downsizers — who are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and live more economically.
“The reason we’ve had so much success here in Eugene is that people have the sense of ownership over the place they live and take pride and want to make it work.” — Andrew Heben, urban planner
In Eugene, the city agreed to donate an acre of land two years ago for the Opportunity Village project, and its organizers have gone on to build 30 houses there, using about $100,000 in cash donations, along with about $100,000 worth of donated material.
To avoid city code violations, none of the houses is equipped with plumbing or connected to an electrical grid, but the village has larger structures for shared bathrooms and kitchens, as well as a communal yurt where shared computers are hooked up.
To secure a spot in one of the houses, each resident is required to sign a community agreement and consent to follow the village’s rules — no violence and theft, no weapons, and no alcohol or drugs on the premises.
The village’s 13-page manual spells out other responsibilities: Each Opportunity Village resident is expected to put in 10 hours a week of work staffing the front desk, serving on security teams, taking turns in cleaning bathrooms — and also attend weekly meetings.
The regulations stem from self-government — the residents themselves are in charge of the village’s day-to-day operations and ultimately decide what’s best for the community and make up their own rules accordingly.
Andrew Heben, an urban planner who played a major role in Opportunity Village’s founding, says this self-governing principle is what’s behind its success.
“The tiny-house village is just a physical model. If you combine that with a conventional, top-down service provider model, I think you’ll get a much different result,” Heben said. “The reason we’ve had so much success here in Eugene is that people have the sense of ownership over the place they live and take pride and want to make it work. I think that’s critical.”
To what extent Caldwell’s plan makes use of the experience of Opportunity Village in setting up the Sand Island facility is still unclear.
But a close reading of the language of two requests for proposals issued by the city — one for constructing the facility, and the other for managing its operation — reveals a number of key differences.
The most obvious difference, of course, is that the Sand Island facility will make use of large, steel shipping containers instead of individually assembled wooden structures.
But a more consequential difference might be the city’s heavy involvement in the facility’s operations. It’s footing the bill for stationing round-the-clock security and hiring a contractor to manage the day-to-day operation of the facility — all in stark contrast to Opportunity Village’s organically formed self-governing structure.
The Sand Island facility would be off-limits to children, and its sleeping quarters won’t have to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
While the contractor could still opt to incorporate self-governing principles, it would not be required to.
An effort to foster the sense of community would also likely be hampered by quick turnover of the residents. While the RFP states that “accommodations for extended shelter … may be made” — and city officials insist there would be no time limit — it clearly calls for a 60-day maximum for each resident’s stay.
Beyond the issue of self-governing, other provisions in the RFP will likely pose big challenges, as well.
According to the RFP, the Sand Island facility would be off-limits to children, and its sleeping quarters won’t have to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards. This would disqualify homeless families and disabled individuals, who make up a sizable portion of the city’s unsheltered homeless population — particularly those living in tent encampments along Kapalama Canal and in Kakaako.
The RFP doesn’t specify whether couples would be able to remain together, and whether pets would be allowed.
Despite these challenges, Brandon Hardin, the proprietor of Tiny Pacific Houses, which distributes miniature homes, still sees a silver lining: The Sand Island facility, he says, is an opportunity to show that applying Opportunity Village’s tiny-house model can work in Honolulu. “It’s an uncommon solution to the common problem of homelessness across the nation, and it’s shown that it can work” he said.
Hardin, a Hawaii native who played professional football before injuries set him back last year, is collaborating with Opportunity Village’s Heben to submit a bid for the Sand Island’s construction contract.
“Sand Island may not be an exact fit to (Heben’s) work in Eugene, but we feel that the model can prove successful if we’re given the opportunity to build something from the ground up,” Hardin said.