Whether it’s a tiny house, a shipping container or an RV, there’s a growing movement around the country to provide safe, comfortable private living spaces to unhoused people. They are a step up from the communal shelter model, with lots of rules and regulations to follow, with a dash – or more – of dehumanization.
In one of New Haven, Connecticut’s poorest neighborhoods, the Amistad Catholic Worker House of Hospitality has been a mainstay for a quarter century, providing food, clothing to many and occasional shelter to one or two individuals. However, that model was upended by COVID and then scrambled again when two homeless tent communities were bulldozed by the city this year. Twenty residents from that tent community relocated to Amistad’s backyard, where they set up their tents surrounding a warming, feeding and community center.
On Oct. 21st, dozens of residents, neighbors and supporters worked together on the equivalent of a barn raising, where they set up six pre-fab tiny houses that will be home to eight people in two adjoining backyards. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus visited the construction site and spoke with Mark Colville, who heads the Amistad Catholic Worker house with his wife Luz. They led the effort to raise more than $30,000 for the purchase, site preparation and construction of the tiny houses. Here he describes the goal of this grassroots emergency housing project.
MARK COLVILLE: Well, this is a community-based neighborhood event here, where we are assembling six tiny homes in our backyard. This is the culmination of an effort that started about a year ago, with an encampment here for unhoused people in the backyard of Amistad Catholic Worker. We are replacing tents with tiny homes today, so there’s a big community here gathered to do the work – from the block, from the neighborhood, from the city and from the suburbs. This has been a communal, cooperative effort, bringing people from all levels of society here in Connecticut who are fed up with the way our unhoused neighbors are forced to live, places where they’re forced to take refuge, and criminalized spaces and such. And we’re trying to do something about that.
These homes are real game changers for people, when you can get from living in a tent to be able to go through a door and lock it behind you. It’s a tremendous change in people’s lives who are forced to live on the street because they’ve become economic refugees.
MELINDA TUHUS: Just describe the tiny homes and tell me what they’re going to have inside.
MARK COLVILLE: Well, it’s a prefab kit that’s built by a company called Pallet on the West Coast. They’ve actually contracted with quite a few municipalities throughout the country, most recently, by the way, Providence, Rhode Island has just approved a plan for 45 of these in a designated parcel of publicly owned land. So these homes, as we’re finding out this morning, are assembleable in about two hours. And they’re equipped with everything – everything except plumbing. And of course we have a house of hospitality here, and we’re rehabbing the first floor of the house so we can make it available, so people can come and go into kitchen, bathroom, showers and such. The homes themselves are hooked up with electricity. We can put solar panels on them. They have heating and cooling units.
What we’re talking about here is a micro neighborhood. It is really true that the folks who live in the backyard are no longer homeless. We have people living together, cooperatively and self-governing. So now, the challenge for us is how do we make the space more livable, more human, and more comfortable, and certainly more warm, as we’re up against another winter.
We need these kinds of communities. Unfortunately, the city is not recognizing people’s human rights to do this on public land when they’re not provided with housing.
MELINDA TUHUS: Let me ask you, actually – you’ve transformed your back yard and your neighbor’s back yard, which is your daughter’s house, right?
MARK COLVILLE: That is correct.
MELINDA TUHUS: You didn’t need any permits or you just did it anyway, even though you would have needed permits?
MARK COLVILLE: Well, in terms of process, I would call it a hybrid process. We understand that the city ordinances do not support it. Therefore, we decided that we would proceed with it, based on the authority of human rights. Specifically, the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We’re using that as our authority to do this, that these local laws that have to do with zoning, when they violate people’s right to take refuge, when they have no place to go, that those laws are not to be respected if we are going to welcome people who are unhoused back into the status of neighbor.
So we went ahead with this project. The city has been aware of it the whole time. And we have started a dialogue several months ago which has now born fruit in us getting together with department heads at City Hall, and going through a permit process. It’s not complete; we still have some steps to go to get authorization to hook up the electricity for all the homes. But we anticipate that it’s going to happen.
The city has not changed its policy or unjust laws yet. They have seen a lot of positive possibilities with what we’re doing, and so on some level they’ve partnered with us to get it complete.
The goal of this is not to build tiny homes. The goal is to change city policy so that that would be respected, that they could actually support these encampments.
Not long after this interview was conducted, the City of New Haven ordered the tiny houses be dismantled until the permitting process was complete. Colville responded defiantly, saying he wouldn’t comply.
For more information, visit Middle East Children’s Alliance at mecaforpeace.org.
For the best listening experience and to never miss an episode, subscribe to Between The Lines on your favorite podcast app or platform: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Tunein+ Alexa, Castbox, Overcast, Podfriend, iHeartRadio, Castro, Pocket Casts, RSS Feed.
Or subscribe to our Between The Lines and Counterpoint Weekly Summary.