Tiny Homes for Huge Problems: Santa Barbara’s Plan to Tackle Homelessness

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Hannah Maerowitz
Science & Tech Editor

Initially adopted by minimalists, tiny houses are now mainstream. They can be found on Airbnb or seen scattered around cities. Although some people view them as absurdly small or a trend destined to die out, others say that they are affordable, have limited carbon footprints, and that the small living space creates intimacy between those who live in it.

Some cities, including Santa Barbara, are moved enough by the positives of tiny houses to consider using them as a government-sponsored housing option to combat growing homelessness and give low-income individuals the chance to own their own homes.

The project, touted by Rob Fredericks, the executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara (HACSB), aims to create a village of around 40 tiny homes at the junction of Carrillo and Castillo street downtown. The plan’s backers (which include the City of Santa Barbara, Cottage Hospital, and the Santa Barbara Housing Authority) hoped to receive a grant of $6.5 million, but instead the grant application received a recommendation of only $2 million, a third of the requested amount.  

Despite critiques of tiny houses as affordable housing options, any housing option that puts walls between the homeless and the outside world increases the safety of homeless populations drastically, to the point where counterarguments seem to fall flat.

A recent report by Crisis, a homeless charity in the UK, found that homeless people are especially prone to physical and verbal violence. One in 10 report being urinated on, one in three have experienced a form of physical violence while homeless, and six in 10 report having experienced verbal abuse or harassment.

Additionally, more than half of homeless people report that someone has stolen one or more of their belongings while they were homeless.

Adverse health outcomes are also associated with homelessness. Hypothermia, malnutrition, parasitic infections, and degenerative joint diseases are all either associated with, or potentially even result from, being homeless. Uncomfortable sleeping conditions also exacerbate existing medical conditions.

A solution to homelessness is clearly needed to provide relief to those experiencing physical or emotional consequences as a result of being forced to live in the streets. Shelters are commonly proposed as a solution; however, shelters have issues of their own and may not be as accessible as many think.

Although many cities have homeless shelters that may provide a short-term warm place to sleep, many are crowded or full. People that stay in shelters also eventually have to leave them, generally returning to living in the streets. Additionally, many homeless people suffer from mental illness or other problems and concentrating them in one crowded area can sometimes create more problems than it solves.

There has also been an increase in family homelessness in the United States, which means that shelters may inadvertently expose children to potentially traumatic conditions.

Tiny houses are a good solution because they give homeless people access to four walls that decrease their risk of negative health outcomes and abuse. They also give them the chance to attain a larger sense of autonomy, as tiny houses are fairly inexpensive and can be eventually paid off through monthly rent payments.

Since many homeless people do not have jobs, mental health services, job training, and case management have been paired with access to tiny houses in cities that have executed plans that are similar to the one Santa Barbara is considering.

Los Angeles, a city that launched a pilot tiny house program for the homeless, only required tiny house residents to contribute 30 percent of their income and used low-income vouchers to cover the rest of the cost of the tiny house.

Building tiny houses to combat homelessness is new territory and may not be as successful as hoped. However, the idea has a lot of potential and is worth trying.

Although critics say that tiny living environments create wear and tear on furniture and concentrate low-income or homeless individuals in one area, exacerbating social inequality, these critiques seem to be more intellectually than emotionally moving.

Protecting people from violence of all kinds and giving them a shot at independence seem like compelling enough reasons to give tiny houses for the homeless a shot in Santa Barbara. Trying out an idea with potential is better than continuing to debate but do nothing.