Depending on who you ask, moving homeless people into wooden cabins either rescues them from the streets or paves the way for shantytowns

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Othello Village is on a plot of land behind a gas station, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It consists of 28 wooden huts and 12 tents that flap in a bitter Pacific wind. Residents share a shower, toilet and kitchen tent, with food stored in plastic boxes to keep out the rats.

Until recently the cabins lacked heating or electricity, and the children who live there currently 11 of its 67 inhabitants had to use flashlights to read their schoolbooks. This is how Seattle, one of the richest cities in the world, flush with cash from Amazon and Microsoft, houses some of its poorest residents.

Outside in America

Seattle is not alone. Wooden cabins euphemistically referred to as tiny houses are increasingly viewed as a quick and cheap solution to homelessness and, with minimal public debate, they are mushrooming across the country.

The shed-like structures have appeared in vacant lots and scrubland in at least 10 states, from Florida to New York to Utah. But the trend is most apparent in northern California and the Pacific north-west. Some of Americas most liberal cities have in recent years shifted from banning and clearing unauthorized homeless settlements, based in part on the argumentthey were unfit for habitation, to sanctioning and even funding camps that skirt building regulations thanks to loopholes or special dispensation.

Depending on who you ask, moving homeless people into tiny houses is either a pragmatic means of rescuing them from the street or an alarming shift in urban planning that could pave the way for the creation of shantytowns.

Barbara Poppe, who coordinated federal homelessness policy for most of Barack Obamas presidency, said she believes the development of slums is a real risk and that some of the ramshackle camps used for homeless people are completely deplorable.

Why would we accept that people should be living in huts that dont have access to water, electricity and sanitation? she said, adding that such basic accommodation stigmatizes homeless people.

Poppe now works as a leading homelessness consultant. She was recently hired by Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, to review the citys homelessness strategy. She advised against funding tiny house encampments, arguing the money would be better spent constructing permanent affordable housing. The city is going ahead with them regardless.

I always challenge the folks on the west coast about this, Poppe said. I say, I dont understand why you find it acceptable for children and infants to live like this. The response, Poppe added, is often a blank stare and a stock reply: We have to do something. This is better than doing nothing.

Gregory Kloehn has built some 50 tiny houses and distributed them to homeless people in West Oakland. Photograph: Brian J Reynolds

Its empowering for the people involved

Thats also the view of residents of Othello, which opened last year.

They say they are grateful for the lockable doors on their cabins, which offer more privacy than city shelters. Shelters are also often at capacity and exclude many homeless people with rules barring couples and pets.

The rules tend to be more flexiblein tiny-house and tent encampments, some of which were born of previously unauthorized camps run by homeless people. Othello is self-managed, with rotations for chores such as manning the security gate.

Its self-organization, its empowering for the people involved, said Sean Smith, a former cook who moved into his cabin a couple of months ago. As opposed to feeling crushed under the weight of circumstance.

Smith, who was born in Seattle and has spent much of the past three decades homeless, conceded the tiny house was rudimentary. Its a wooden tent, thats what it is, basically, he said. Sure, I got structure, I got the ability to lock the door. I would love to see a fully functioning village where each unit is actually a home.

He added that someone could gethypothermia in one of these.

Even so, Smith and others objected last month when the nonprofit that supports the camp raised enough money to connect the huts to electricity, bringing heat and light. They felt the money would be better spent on constructing more tiny houses, because homeless people inquire about vacancies on a daily basis.

The ethics of tiny homes seem more fraught when their youngest inhabitants are taken into account.

On the other side of Seattle, on land owned by the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, there is a cluster of 14 cabins. Their residents include a woman named Rhonda, who became homeless after losing her job as a restaurant manager. She said she was grateful for the shelter but was findingit acramped place in which to bring up her five-year-old daughter, Brooklyn.

Shes got a lot of energy, she said. Theres just no room. No TV. Nothing to do. Her daughter would often rather sit in a car, she said, than spend hours inside the one-room cabin.

You have to put homeless people somewhere

Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattles Low Income Housing Institute, which manages both settlements, stressed that the cabins are supposed to be temporary accommodation. We dont want tiny houses to be a dead end, she said.

She hit upon the conceptafter decades navigating restrictive building codes and planning rules that made it impossible to build cheap and quick housing for homeless people; Lee was thrilled to discover a bit of a loophole whereby structures smaller than 120-square feet are not recognized as permanent dwellings. Tiny houses costing a mere $2,200would be exempt from regulations governing residential buildings.

Seattle which has declared a state of emergency over its homelessness crisis threw its support behind the initiative, granting special permission for clusters of cabins on public and private land across the city and giving Lee $1.24m to run various sites in 2017. By the end of the year, her organization will have 127 cabins at five locations, providing shelter to more than 310 men, women and children.

The city insists they are only a stopgap solution, and the ultimate goal is to move tiny-house residents into permanent homes. Leesaid she has achieved this with 161 people.

But she conceded there was a shortage of places where people could move. Seattles lack of affordable housing has contributed to what Lee calls the worst homelessness crisis of her 25-year career. Her own organization owns ormanagesaround 2,000 units of affordable housing and is constantly building more, but it can take three to four years for any one project to come to fruition.The situation may be helped by a huge property-tax levy for low-income housing that was approved by voters last year.

In the meantime, you have to put homeless people somewhere, Lee said. If the shelters cant take them, where should they be? On the streets?

This is not the only indication that tiny-house villages may be an enduring presence.

Ten encampments of shed-like structures for homeless people are planned for the end of 2017 in San Jose, in an area where the expansion of technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook has contributed to an acute housing shortage and soaring rental costs. It is the most ambitious tiny-house experiment in the country.

Ray Bramson, a manager at the citys housing department, said the aim is for every occupant of a tiny house to be moved into permanent housing within five years, a goal bolstered by the recent approval of a local ballot measure that will channel hundreds of millions of dollars into affordable homes. In any event, the California legislation that allows San Jose to bypass building and safety rules for its tiny houses expires in 2022.

Yet Bramson conceded that things could change and that if the demand persists, the legislation could be renewed. If these continue to be viable we would absolutely look into whether they could stay longer, he said.

Andrew Heben, who helped start a tiny-house village in Oregon and has documented their rise in his book, Tent City Urbanism, said that virtually all of them began as temporary encampments that cities only reluctantly agreed to. But he said he was unaware of any that have been shut down.

Most cities insist on the temporary designation even though they know these will be needed into the foreseeable future, he said.

Alan describes his tiny home as utter relief … like reaching the shore after a shipwreck. Photograph: Jenny Riffle for the Guardian

A growing movement

The movement is burgeoning. In Los Angeles and Oakland, both cities that have resisted efforts for city-approved communities of tiny houses, activists have been distributing homemade varieties in unsanctioned acts of guerilla philanthropy. An artist named Gregory Kloehn has built some 50 tiny houses and distributed them to homeless people in West Oakland.

But if tiny houses for homeless people are indeed destined to become permanent features of the cityscape, some say they must meet a higher standard. There is added urgency, Heben argues, because the need for them will almost certainly increase under the Trump administration. The Republican president has, for example, proposed cutting billions of dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds affordable housing.

Hebens second village, which he begins construction on this month, will be a permanent community consisting of 250-square feet structures small as opposed to tiny with en-suite bathrooms and even kitchenettes.

They will cost $60,000 per unit rather than $3,300, as at Hebens inaugural project, yet they will still only be a third of the price of conventional affordable housing in Eugene.

These sorts of comparatively comfortable tiny homes already exist at Quixote village in Olympia,the state capital of Washington. Some view it as the gold-standard for tiny house communities. Ten of the original 30 residents who moved in three years ago have stayed, and some have signaled they want to remain for good. Quixote is almost the pinnacle of their aspirations, said Alan, 66, a resident for two years.

Showers and shared kitchen facilities are in a warm, permanent building, rather than the canvas tents used sixty miles away in Seattle. Each tiny house, costing the equivalent of $88,000 per unit, has a porch and a bathroom.

Alan said that he and hisexwife, both nurses, once had a combined income of $100,000 and a 32ft sailboat. But their divorce tipped him into a downward spiral, and he spent more than a decade living in a homemade shack, on the streets, and in a Salvation Army shelter.

He recalled the feeling when he first moved into his tiny home in Quixote just over two years ago. The ability to go in the cabin, close the door, lie on the bed utter relief, he said. Like reaching the shore after a shipwreck.

Alan reads for as many as 18 hours a day it is probably the most extreme, intense, escapism, he said – and there are New Yorker covers decorating the walls of his cabin and books stacked in every corner. On the windowsill is a book that documents how shantytowns appeared across Seattle during the Great Depression.

Might tiny houses for homeless people also be described as shanties?

Thats a viewpoint taken from high above, he said. To the people out there on streets, living in cardboard boxes in alleyways, this represents the promised land.

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