WILLMAR, Minn. – The tiny house is nearly ready. Sitting atop a trailer, the 16-by-8-foot structure boasts big windows and careful woodwork. The roof, at last, is on.
But before Dave, who’s been homeless for three years, can move in, advocates in St. Cloud have to find a place for it. The city’s codes don’t allow people to stay in such dwellings on streets or even in yards.
So this week — once it’s hauled from Willmar, where it was built by high schoolers — the little gray house will sit on display, unoccupied.
“In order for someone to physically live there, we have some hurdles to get over,” said Tina Lamberts, a musician who formed the St. Cloud Coalition for Homeless Men after meeting men camped in her neighborhood.
As the number of people who are homeless in Minnesota continues to rise, her group’s work to shelter people in tiny houses highlights microhousing’s appeal: Materials for this house, much of them donated, would have cost about $10,000. But it also reveals challenges: Few cities are prepared for microhousing, partly because the idea is new. This would be the state’s first tiny house for the homeless.
Lamberts trusts that once city officials and neighbors see the 128-square-foot house and meet its future occupant, Dave, a 57-year-old St. Cloud native who asked that his last name not be published, they’ll welcome both.
On a recent morning, Dave and his friend Brian Hurd drove to Willmar in Hurd’s 1995 Ford van, a hammock strung up inside, makeshift shelves crammed with clothes and tools. Hurd, 53, has slept in this “rust bucket” for years, he said, cocooned in down quilts in the winter, handwarmers stuffed in his pockets.
“They throw off just enough heat to make it bearable,” he said.
Hurd lost his marriage, first. After the divorce, he moved from Sioux Falls into a friend’s house in Clearwater, Minn., until it was foreclosed on. Working at a plastics factory, Hurd was injured, then lost his job.
He went to St. Cloud, meeting Dave in the shuffle between church shelters and getting involved with the Coalition for Homeless Men.
“Dave’s kind of the pioneer,” Hurd said, nodding to Dave as they checked out the progress on the construction. Cabinets sat ready for countertops, a sink and a two-burner stove. A pocket door separated the single room from the small bathroom with its 6-gallon shower tank.
Hurd hopes he might be next. The group has bought a second trailer, this one a little bigger: 20 feet long, bringing the square footage to 160.
They envision a village of tiny houses, much like the ones that have sprouted in cities across the country — including Eugene, Ore., and Madison, Wis.
Dave and others visited Madison last fall, checking out the row of colorful houses beside an old car service station they’d transformed into the village hub, housing its bathrooms, a workshop and a store.
The St. Cloud group is hunting for property.
“We’ve actually looked at a few,” Dave said, “but then found out the price tag.”
For now, they’re figuring out where to park the first house.
St. Cloud’s rules require permanent houses to be at least 21 feet wide and 30 feet long — or 630 square feet. This house has wheels, so it qualifies as a recreational vehicle. Code says that RVs “shall not be used for living, sleeping or housekeeping while parked or stored.”
Depending on where the group puts the tiny house, a bevy of zoning, building and health codes could apply, said Matt Glaesman, city planning director. The city doesn’t have enough details about what the group is proposing, yet, he said.
Tiny homes range from permanent structures that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars “to dumpsters that have been converted for occupancy,” he said. “We really need to understand what kind of tiny house is being talked about.”
If this house were to stay in the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where it will be displayed starting this week, the group would need the city’s OK to amend the property’s conditional use permit, he said.
“We have a homelessness problem here in St. Cloud,” Glaesman added, “and it’s a potential solution.”
Wilder Research, which conducts a homeless count every three years, found 605 homeless people in Central Minnesota in 2012 — a 25 percent jump from 2009. That Minnesota Homeless Study found about half that group in non-shelter locations. The state’s homeless population rose 6 percent over the same period to 10,182; about two-thirds were in the Twin Cities.
Lamberts first encountered the problem while walking her dog. “I look out my window, and there they are,” she said.
She started the Coalition for Homeless Men, which meets every other Tuesday, to help a small group of men with “whatever issues” they were encountering. A ride to the doctor. Quarters for laundry.
“This is not another program. We are not another social service agency,” she said. “What we are is a neighborhood organization of volunteers who are helping their neighbors.”
The group has been developing relationships with some of the men experiencing homelessness “very slowly,” Lamberts said. They share meals. They celebrate holidays together. Last winter, Lamberts’ family returned from China to find that they had decorated her house for Christmas.
A tiny house wouldn’t be a good solution for every homeless person, she acknowledged. But, she said, “The guys that I know, I know that this would change their life around.”
After doing concrete work for a decade, Dave was laid off a few years back. He lost his apartment and lived in his car, until he lost that, too. “I’m on foot, now,” he said, pulling down the brim of his baseball cap. “Now it’s just the clothes on my back and toiletries, and that’s about it.”
He does odd jobs. Hurd, left with fused vertebrae and a plate in his neck, sells plasma twice a week. They both believe that tiny houses will help people find work.
“If you don’t have a place to be at night, it’s kind of hard to get up to work in the morning,” Dave said.
He looked around the tiny house that could soon become his home. The manager in charge of Youth Build, a Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services program, ticks off the specs: Six-inch walls, R-13 insulation, an efficient electric heater.
To Dave, the best features are: “Just having a place to keep my stuff, a door that locks, a place not to share with anybody.”
Naturally soft-spoken, he knows that he’ll have to be a kind of spokesman for the program and hopes that St. Cloud residents give him a shot.
“Nobody’s here to cause trouble,” he said. “Just to find a place and fit into a neighborhood.
“It’s a smaller home, but it’s like any other home.”