Out-of-the-Box Solutions

Helping the homeless

Local homeless-advocate Michele Ream walks the walk. She's let homeless people crash at her place. She uses social media to drum up support when she sees someone being mistreated. Terri Franco and other homeless people say groups that want to help should ask Ream and others in the trenches how to combat homelessness.

Ream's nonprofit Community Supported Shelters Tucson, launched in 2015, builds 8-by-12-foot structures she calls "homeless huts." So far, they've built two that are housing people.

Ream is a realtor, and she plans to fund a hut from every house sale—paid from her commissions—but she'd like to see lending, title and home-warranty companies contribute as well.

"I think you would get a lot of people that would want to work with agents and lenders that participate in that," she says. "How cool it would be to buy your first home and be like, 'We helped someone get off the streets.'"

The shelters cost about $1,500 to make, using all new materials. Using donated materials could drastically lower the cost.

Ream is pushing to get her huts put up around town, starting with places where organizations and individuals already have informal relationships with homeless people in their neighborhoods. She's garnered some support from the Tucson City Council. They've been waiting for religious organizations, non-profits and businesses to step up with property for up to four small homes, but so far none have.

City officials and nonprofits have done a lot to combat homelessness in Pima County. In the last five years, homeless numbers dropped by 33 percent, according to Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness, the nonprofit that secures federal funding for homeless outreach every year. Also, the number of homeless veterans fell below 285 for the first time in four years, to 243.

But with more than 1,500 people in Pima County still homeless, organizations continue looking for innovative ways to house people. Some are looking to learn from unconventional projects in other states.

SquareOne Villages in Eugene, Oregon, is a 30-unit microhousing community that's permitted as a shelter. Unlike a shelter, people have a space to call their own. The smallest homes don't have bathrooms, kitchens or electricity, but there are shared spaces with all the amenities including Wi-Fi and a community garden.

Eugene's mayor and City Council also established the Overnight Parking Program, funded by the city, which allows people to sleep in a tent, vehicle or tiny shelter. Eugene also has six "safe spots," which allows up to 20 people to camp or have small huts.

In Portland, there's Right 2 Dream Too, a permanent "tent city" on a loaned property, run by homeless people. Started in October 2011, Right 2 Dream has between 12 to 30 members at all times who get a personal tent space and participate in operation of the camp and homeless activism. As well, anyone is welcome to sleep there for up to 12 hours in shelters designated for either men, women or couples.

One of the project's founders, Ibrahim Mubarak, says over 400 members have moved on to more permanent housing but have come back to volunteer with the project.

"We need to create a support: in-the-meantime solutions like villages, tent cities or rest areas," he says. "And the public needs to push for the right to rest and build because people shouldn't be penalized for sleeping."

Ream and her cohorts are creating a homeless-hut blueprint, soon to be available on the Community Supported website, so groups and people with property can build shelters to house people.

Homeless people often wait years to qualify for housing assistance, and Ream's shelters can create semi-permanent solutions for people transitioning off the street, an in-between phase to help people get their bearings.

"So often, the transition from wash or desert or just mobile-park-and-alley life into an apartment – if you happen to be one of the magical categories that happens for—is a rough transition that I don't think we acknowledge for people," Ream says. ■

For more information on Community Supported Shelters Tucson go to csstucson.com or facebook.com/communitysupportedshelterstucson.