Tiny homes community offers stable housing, human services to residents
Mike Bell wasn’t always homeless. But right before it happened, he was raising three girls, going through a separation and an unemployment check paid his rent. Bell didn’t get any specialized education when he was younger, so the jobs he found were always physical labor jobs. After so many years, he developed back problems that made physical jobs nearly impossible to complete.
Bell’s early life was tough. He started drinking at age 14 after losing a second sibling and witnessing a fatality at age 13.
“After my brother’s death I just didn’t care if I lived or died tomorrow. I was reckless and didn’t care about anything or anybody, or myself.”
Suffering from PTSD and depression for most of his life, Bell’s life started to unravel around 2011 and he ended up homeless — for years.
“I was a mess,” said the 51-year-old. “The shelter in Olympia pretty much saved my life.”
At one point, Bell had to detox on his own on the streets of Olympia because he had stay sober for a month before he could get a bed at a treatment center.
“It was pretty rough to be downtown and be around people who were drinking. Every day was a battle because I was surrounded by it. I was able to control myself and wait for that bed.”
During this time, he frequented local shelters such as The Salvation Army, Oxford House (which offered a sober atmosphere) and Drexell House. Each shelter offered different social services, and it was also when Bell tried to work through some of his mental health issues.
“I surrounded myself with those people that would help me with support,” he said. “Once I dug into my mental illness, that’s what keeps me sober.”
While trying to improve his life and escape homelessness, he found Quixote Village.
Tucked away in Olympia is Quixote Village, a community of 30 homes that house formerly homeless individuals aged 18 and older. First lady Trudi Inslee visited the community Tuesday and spoke with staff about the community’s history, challenges and successes. She toured the village, met residents, saw the inside of Mike’s tiny home and walked around the community garden.
“This permanent housing community is helping people find dignity through housing,” she said. “These residents are ambassadors for this issue and I want to thank them for sharing their stories.”
Gov. Jay Inslee signed a tiny homes bill during May. The new law will help local jurisdictions know how to best site tiny home villages like Quixote. The bill also established a standard for how to build tiny homes.
The state invested $1.5 million (about half of the $3 million cost) into building Quixote Village through a Washington State Department of Commerce grant. For 68 percent of residents, the tiny homes improved their physical health, and for 45 percent of them the place to call home improved their mental health.
Bell has lived there for about five years, and it’s one of the most stable homes he’s experienced in a long time.
“To be able to have a roof over my head and heat in the wintertime, and a bed to sleep in, it’s a lot easier,” Bell said. “I would not have survived on the streets. Deep down in my heart I don’t think I would have lived that much longer because of my mental illness and I was drinking a lot.”
At any given time, there are about 125 people on the Quixote Village waitlist and that number has remained constant during the past few years. To get into the community, the staff references something called a Vulnerability Index for that person. Another nonprofit group gives this type of vulnerability assessment, asking questions such as, ‘How likely is it that this person will die on the streets if they don’t get access to housing soon?’ and ‘What is the state of their mental health?’
Jaycie Osterberg, executive director of Quixote Communities, said the higher the score, the more likely they go to the top of the waiting list.
“It’s a need-based thing,” Osterberg said.
Now in its fifth year, this community is permanent supportive housing and a permanent part of Olympia.
“This is built to last,” she said.
Residents pay 30 percent of their income for rent, which costs $570 per month. The Housing Authority of Thurston County subsidizes the rent. The community houses people whose income is at 30 percent of the area’s median income, which means most residents experience extreme poverty. At any given time, about 20 percent of the residents are employed. But about 50 percent of the residents have a disability that prevents them from working full time. To help the residents with rent cost, Osterberg said the staff is creating an employment program where they could hire the residents to help with landscaping, general maintenance and custodial work.
“A lot of them have employment gaps and there’s a stigma there to get hired,” she said. “It’s a great way to offer them that experience and offer them some sort of dignified income.”
Staff is on hand to help residents with social services, things such as making a dental appointments, finding a doctor for checkups, getting a high school diploma or finding a mental health counselor.
“We make sure our residents have 100 percent health care at all times,” she said. “We really try to have wrap-around services and get them plugged into those resources.”
Out of the 30 residents, nine of them have lived there since the community opened in 2013.
“They can stay there as long as they want to,” she said. “Some have said this is their forever home and their last stop.”
The staff doesn’t allow alcohol or drugs on-site and residents can live there as long as they stay alcohol and drug-free. More than 80 percent of the residents are recovering from addiction or are making substantial progress toward sobriety.
Based on the success of Quixote, Osterberg said they plan to break ground on two more villages in Orting and Shelton. These will house homeless veterans.
While some folks use the tiny home community as a steppingstone, Osterberg said many love to stay because many of the residents don’t have support systems elsewhere.
“We think the community aspect is really the secret sauce to the village,” she said. “They really create their own family there.”
Bell said he wants people to understand that homelessness can truly happen to anybody — housing is so complicated, he said.
“It’s not necessarily because of addition,” he said. “It’s because so many people can no longer afford to pay their rent and mortgage.”
When people struggle with their rent, don’t have family to lean on or have exhausted their resources, Bell said there’s nothing left for their basic needs.
“You try so hard and you end up homeless,” Bell said. “I really respect the people who are trying to get out of that situation. I had no hope for the future and it was the people that I met that gave me the light where I knew things could happen. That’s how I pulled myself out of that darkness.”