Three years ago Gabrielle Clowdus was pursuing a doctorate at the University of Minnesota with a focus on international poverty when an adviser told her about the laments of a hospital CEO who said people were being sheltered and fed in the emergency room to the tune of $1,500 a night.

Clowdus knew there had to be a better way, so she shifted her research and nearly two years ago co-founded Settled, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit she hopes will help get people off the streets through an unusual — but untested — approach.

"We can eradicate homelessness," she said. "It was a created problem and we can overcome it."

In an effort to understand that world, Clowdus hit the streets and shelters where she conducted hundreds of "listening sessions" with people she befriended. She quickly discovered that for many, a lack of housing was only part of the problem.

"It's not just that they lack an apartment," she said. "They've experienced a catastrophic loss of family or friend and are living on the outskirts of society and are feeling unloved and unwanted."

That realization seemed at odds with what has been the focus of a federal housing-first approach to solving the problem, so Clowdus, inspired by a "community first" approach developed by a nonprofit called Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin, embraced the notion that being part of a stable community is as important as having stable housing.

It was clear that building more apartments, which in the Twin Cities can cost about $250,000 to build an average studio unit, isn't going to solve the problem. So Clowdus visited communities across the country where less-expensive "tiny houses," which are typically less than a couple of hundred square feet, are being used to house the homeless to find out what worked and what didn't.

That model, while more affordable than most site-built housing, has several challenges. In most states and municipalities, such tiny houses are considered recreational vehicles, not permanent homes, and most are far smaller than most residential zoning codes allow.

A breakthrough came in the fall of 2018 when she met Anne Franz, a former Twin Cities business executive and consultant who had been struggling to reconcile what she saw at her church and others. These congregations owned sprawling buildings and grounds that were rarely used, but often swimming in debt. She found it troubling to see donations being used to pay interest on debt for underused buildings.

Franz channeled that frustration into an effort to build a business aimed at helping congregations maximize the use of tax-exempt church-owned property, which is governed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that offers religious institutions protections from certain laws that govern local land-use regulations.

Franz said the community-first focus of Settle dovetails perfectly with the socially minded goals of many congregations, so she and Clowdus put together a plan to put tiny houses on church-owned land where members could provide support services — and a sense of community — to residents in what they call Sacred Settlements.

"Because churches are asset rich and cash poor," Franz said, "the question is how can they contribute back into the community?"

Clowdus, who has an architecture degree, designed and built a prototype 10-by-10-foot tiny house on wheels that cost $20,000 to build and can be built using off-the-shelf materials and unskilled volunteer labor. The structures will be insulated and have electricity but no plumbing. Residents will use gravity-fed sinks to wash dishes and for personal hygiene, and they will use a dry toilet that can be emptied daily. Residents will share a "common house" that will have complete kitchen facilities, laundry, showers and a gathering space. The common house will dramatically reduce the cost of building and maintaining the houses, but will also force residents to interact on a daily basis.

Clowdus said that while the structures are spartan, they will have the essential elements of a home, including a bed and full-depth counters with enough storage for basic food prep. And residents would pay $200 month.

"It's actually empowering to know that you're able to pay for it," Clowdus said.

Settled is negotiating with local congregations, including one that has set up a special committee to evaluate the proposal to locate more than a dozen structures on its land. Key to the success of the model is volunteer labor supplied by the church.

Tom Fisher, professor and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture, said the community-first approach is an easily replicable and low-cost model of national importance.

"Settled's community-first model is innovative in its understanding that people experiencing homelessness don't just lack housing," he said, "but also the family supports that many other people rely on when facing setbacks in our lives."