James Hubbard traveled far underneath a highway overpass in Tacoma to reach his home.
To get there on an unusually warm February evening, he passed by two other people who used the covered roadway as a mile-long roof. They were bundled up in blankets or using layers of cardboard to get comfortable.
Far down the overpass, Hubbard pointed up a small slope to his home. It was barely visible — if Hubbard wasn’t there to point it out, few people would see it — but there, tucked behind a concrete piling, nestled against a tree was Hubbard’s small, A-frame portable house.
It’s about seven feet long and belly-high, with a frame built out of one-inch PVC pipe and a roof made out of corrugated greenhouse plastic. It has a wooden door with a lock that was recently broken by someone curious about the little structure. Most crucially, it sits on two wheels on one side and wooden rests on the other — which means it can be carted around like a wheelbarrow.
This is Hubbard’s home, where he sleeps at night to rest up before starting another day working in waste management. Eventually, he hopes to find an apartment, but in the meantime this house is providing him better shelter than when he bundled up in blankets as he slept under the same overpass.
“When it got really windy, I would have to really wrap up,” James said.
A small group of volunteers working on their own time without any organizational support built the home for Hubbard. It is one of about a half-dozen small, portable houses they have provided to homeless people living in Tacoma.
The project is the brainchild of Peter Roderick, a participant in the local Catholic Worker movement. He got the idea last year when he was feeding people outdoors in the evening. He was struck by the number of people living near a Catholic Worker community house between downtown Tacoma and the Hilltop neighborhood.
“We do know that there’s a great need,” Roderick said. “If you [come] up here at 10 o’clock, you’ll see many people sleeping here on Tacoma Avenue.”
Pierce County reported 267 people living unsheltered in Tacoma after its 2014 point-in-time count of homeless people.
Roderick’s project is one of several around the country building small dwelling units for people as a remedy to homelessness. In Eugene, Ore., Madison, Wisc., and Olympia, housing activists have built villages of small structures.
While cities and counties work to find money for more shelter space and transitional housing, some people have headed out to the hardware store and the junkyard to collect up material to build tiny housing units that people can live in immediately.
It takes a village
One of the first established communities of small houses to open was Opportunity Village in Eugene, Ore., a 2013 project that grew out of the Occupy movement. The community rests in West Eugene and is spotted with small houses that are about 8 feet by 8 feet for singles or 8 feet by 10 feet for couples. They built a yurt, a round building, as a community living room and have shared restrooms.
Like the tent cities around King County, Opportunity Village is self-managed by tenants. They pay a monthly $30 utility fee, but no rent, said Cory Aslin, 51, a resident and member of the organization’s board.
Aslin said the village was necessary to help people who cannot afford rising rent prices in the region.
“I think it’s really important in order to look out for the welfare of others,” he said. “If one sector is hurting, eventually, everybody is going to be affected.”
Not long after, Quixote Village opened in Olympia. That group started as a tent city, but then built 30 144-square-foot houses. They also have a building with a kitchen, showers and a common space.
These days, the program is a very different organization, said Raul Salazar, program manager. Before, it was a self-managed encampment, but now it is a housing provider that collects rent — 30 percent of a tenant’s income, no matter what the person makes — with contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Quixote Village must follow rental housing laws and ensure tenants’ rights.
“What became pretty clear when we opened was that we needed process people, and we needed policy people,” Salazar said. “We were being held accountable for things; we were liable for things.”
But the process has worked, Salazar said.
“The idea was, let’s get it off the ground and see if it works,” he said. “If it does work, hopefully we inspire other organizations to put something similar together.”
Portable houses, like those in Tacoma, are easier to build and distribute. Artist Greg Kloehn has been building small houses on wheels in Oakland for the past two-and-a-half years and giving them to homeless people.
Kloehn collects discarded materials and turns them into unique houses.
Because they are objects and not structures or motorized vehicles, he said there’s no legal requirements that have prevented their use around Oakland.
“It’s not really illegal, because it’s movable,” he said. “It’s a large baby stroller, it’s a larger shopping cart.”
Kloehn started building them several years ago after he built himself a second home out of a large Dumpster. As an exercise in art, he tried to build a modular, functional home out of the Dumpster.
The structure currently sits in New York and is outfitted with cooking gear, a place to sleep and a shower on the outside. He stays in it a couple months out of the year.
After that, Kloehn decided to try building a small home with no money. He collected up material that construction workers had dumped illegally at night.
“I think it’s a little more poetic to take our waste and turn it into homes,” Kloehn said. “I’m just taking it off the street, rearranging it and putting it back on the street.”
Little homes on the prairie
In Tacoma, Roderick and his friends are using materials they purchase from hardware stores: wood, Styrofoam insulation, plastic roofing sheet, rubber casters, nuts, bolts, screws and hinges, among other items.
It costs about $250 to build a portable home, with most of the funding coming from an anonymous donor.
Roderick said he leaves it up to God to decide who gets the houses. The team builds them and waits to see who comes by to ask for one.
Eventually, Roderick hopes to see the little houses spotting the Tacoma landscape, simultaneously providing people shelter from the elements while creating a sort of visual protest about the amount of homelessness he sees.
He would love to find a piece of land to allow people to stay with their portable homes.
When they give the houses away, it’s for keeps. There are no regulations, expectations or requirements. Roderick and his friends delivered one to Hubbard near the highway overpass at night, and he carted it off into the dark.
For Hubbard, he’s promised himself the home will be temporary. He plans to be in an apartment by this summer.
When that happens, he’ll pass the little house on to the next person who needs it.
“I’ll give this back to Peter or somebody else to use,” Hubbard said. “That’s my plan; that’s how it should work.”