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Seattle's tiny home villages pose as a potential solution to Spokane's homeless crisis

Seattle's Low-Income Housing Institute is finding big success in tiny solutions, building more than 700 tiny homes in 17 villages for the city's homeless population.

SEATTLE — As Spokane continues to look for solutions to the growing homeless crisis, a tiny homes program in Seattle is proving to be successful in moving those experiencing homelessness off the streets.

Seattle's Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) is finding big success in small solutions. Five and a half years ago, the non-profit put up two tiny homes for a pair of homeless veterans. Since that time, the concept has grown to more than 700 tiny homes in 17 villages across the Puget Sound area.

"As housing prices have just gotten even more out of control, more and more people are homeless," said Andrew Constantino, LIHI's assistant program manager. "People are getting left outside."

In the University District of Seattle, there was once a large tent encampment that has now been replaced by a tiny home village. The village is equipped with blackout fencing along the sidewalk, making it easy to walk by and not know what's inside.

KREM 2 spoke with Belky Caicedo, a homeless resident in Seattle. She said she has been homeless once before and has spent time at some of Seattle's biggest shelters. For the last month and a half, however, she has lived in a tiny home community called Rosie's Village.

"I knew that they were here and that they were a place to sleep," Caicedo said. "I didn't know anything else about them and I've learned that they're a lot more than that."

Caicedo said if she did not have the option of staying in one of the tiny homes, she would have ended up sleeping in a tent outside, under a bridge or in an abandoned house.

"It became very clear that we needed to do something that would be quicker, less expensive, and find a way to protect vulnerable people who are unsheltered or living on the streets," said Sharon Lee, the executive director at LIHI.

Lee said this program is not just about putting a roof over someone's head. Each tiny home village also has 24/7 staffing, indoor laundry, kitchen and bathrooms, and access to services like job counseling and physical and mental health.

Lee added that people are able to recover from the trauma of being homeless much more quickly in an environment like this.

"We help them with getting their IDs, filling out housing applications, filling out employment applications," she explained. "And it's just been phenomenal. Last year, 56% of the people who exited a village got into housing."

Lee said the tiny homes are meant to be a stepping stone into permanent housing.

"We have some people that stay only a few weeks, other people may stay three to six months," she explained. 

The tiny homes program has also helped solve the problem of shelter resistance because they offer individual privacy, a locking door and the ability for families or couples to stay together. They even allow pets.

Despite the amenities, Lee said the city will still potentially face homeless individuals who will not go to a shelter.

"There are vacancies at many of the congregate shelters, and it's very frustrating," she said.

It is one of the most persistent challenges homeless advocates face.

Sara Rankin is a professor at Seattle University's School of Law. She's been researching homelessness since the city declared it a "state of emergency" in 2015. In her opinion, congregate shelters that hold between 100-200 beds are one of the least effective tools available to cities.

"Congregate shelters have been studied repeatedly," Rankin said. "They have very poor performance rates in terms of making sure that people are exiting to something positive."

It's why she said cities like Spokane need to start focusing on more short-term alternatives, as well as long-term housing.

"Everybody has to slow down and realize that even if we have different ideas about how to go about this, we have to start from the page that this is a shared problem," Rankin said. "Everyone wants homelessness to get better. And the way that first happens is by seating everybody at the table as a potential partner and making that happen. That is not something that happens in Seattle politics, there's a lot of fighting and posturing."

Despite the challenges, Rankin said other cities are figuring it out, such as Austin, San Diego and Houston. She added that Spokane can do the same by learning where others have failed.

During KREM 2's visit in Seattle, we spoke with multiple people who are currently experiencing homelessness. Just like in Spokane, many of them are camped out on DOT property alongside the freeway.

Some of the people we spoke with told us that if given a choice between staying in a nearby homeless shelter or spending their nights in a tent, they will choose the tent. 

This is why advocates say there is no quick fix for the homelessness crisis. Instead, it will take a number of long-term programs to truly resolve the problem.

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