Are tiny house encampments the answer to homelessness?

SEATTLE – A handful of Seattle families will be able to sleep inside after getting the keys to their new tiny homes. Thursday, city leaders and volunteers welcomed a new encampment that will include 40 new tiny houses in Georgetown.

It’s part of Seattle’s fight against homelessness. Qualified homeless singles, couples and even families can stay in the homes as they work to get back on their feet.

Georgetown’s Tiny House Village is the latest of four city-sanctioned homeless encampments at 1419 22nd Ave. The others include Ballard Encampment at 2826 NW Market Street, Interbay Encampment at 3234 17th Avenue W, and the Othello Village at 7544 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.

“Not everybody out there is homeless because they’re drug addicts or drunks or whatever. It's circumstances,” said 60-year-old JR Ohmer, who found himself homeless last year on his birthday.

He says he had two back-to-back injuries that stopped him from working. He got evicted and ended up on the streets, until he learned about Othello Village, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment with tents and tiny houses.

“I started out in a tent and then I got my first little tiny house,” said Ohmer.

Thursday afternoon, another encampment opened in Georgetown.

“Living in a tiny house for a short period of time makes sense. It’s only a temporary situation. We don’t want it to be long term at all. To the extent you can have a secured tiny house, then we help you move into housing and get employment,” said Low Income Housing Institute Executive Director Sharon Lee.

The tiny house encampments are exactly what an Ohio-based consultant told the city of Seattle not to do. It paid Barbara Poppe $80,000 for her recommendations. She said encampments are dangerous and unsanitary. She told city leaders rapid re-housing is the answer to homelessness like in the Silicon Valley.

“What they have been able to do is establish some preferred partnerships with landlords and they are still able to move households into it. It is possible, but it definitely is more challenging and the cost will be greater,” said consultant Poppe.

But Lee says an out-of-towner doesn’t know what Seattle needs.

“We have serious problems with her recommendations,” said Lee.

So the tiny house program is pushing forward with what Lee says will be more success stories like JR's.

Lee said that “157 people have moved into housing. 103 people have gotten employment and we’ve helped about 30 people reunite with their family or friends so they are no longer homeless."

“Signing the lease to be here was more important than the day I signed the mortgage papers on my five-bedroom house,” said Ohmer.

Materials to build each tiny house costs $2,200. Lee says that money comes from the city’s homelessness budget. Volunteers build the houses. Lee says right now the organization needs more land to have more encampments to help more of Seattle’s homeless transition into permanent housing.