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Giving People Forced Into Homelessness A Chance To Rebuild, With A Tiny (House) Solution

Melinda Nichols (right) is the first apprenticed female carpenter in Washington. (Courtesy Alice Lockridge)

Hattie Rhodes and Andrew Constantino remember an awful moment back in 2013 when they looked at their rent increase notice and realized they couldn’t afford to stay in their studio apartment in Seattle.

"We basically got priced out of Seattle while we were both working," Andrew, 44, said. "We’d had the same apartment for nearly a decade."

Hattie, 39, remained hopeful that something affordable would eventually come up. Months passed. Still nothing.

To make matters worse, Hattie had just lost her job as a waitress because the restaurant where she worked closed. Her boyfriend Andrew had been, and still works as, a community organizer. The couple had to tap into their savings to pay for necessities and for each $40 apartment application fee. They never actually got any of the apartments they applied for.

Hattie and Andrew bounced around, sometimes living on friend’s couches and sometimes in shelters. They often had to stay apart because few places could accommodate both of them. They applied for affordable housing, but as a childless couple without serious health issues, they weren’t considered a priority on the wait-list.

Hattie Rhodes, 39, and Andrew Constantino, 44, got priced out of their studio apartment in Seattle while they were both working. (Credit Alison Bruzek)

"I think that’s when I reached my despair and started to accept that we’re going to be homeless for a while," said Hattie.

Their only option, if they wanted to stay together, was to move to a homeless encampment and set up a tent.

"It was a hard sell for sure because you have these internalized feelings of failure," Andrew said. "What will my family say? What will my friends think? I’m staying at one of the tent cities. You’ve lost everything."

Hattie says she worried about the stigma of being homeless, so she kept it from employers and coworkers at her retail job.

"Here in Seattle, they think everyone’s on drugs or it’s a mental health thing," Hattie said. "I don’t have a drug addiction. I don’t have a mental health issue. What I have is an economic issue that I cannot seem to get out of of."

Winter, with its unrelenting rain, was the hardest part of living outside.

"You are never dry, and that wears on you a lot. So getting up in the morning and knowing you have to put on damp clothing is really demoralizing," she said. "You want to curl up and pretend that you’re not in the situation you’re in and then go to work and pretend like 'hey, I got wet on the way to work like everyone else.'"

Andrew noticed several communities of tiny houses popping up across the city. He’d met some of the residents and the people building them through his work. One of the builders was 69-year-old carpenter Melinda Nichols, who’s the first apprenticed female carpenter in Washington.

"If you come to Seattle, you will see tents all over the place. You will see homeless people everywhere, and it’s shocking and it's disturbing and it breaks your heart," Melinda said. "This is an emergency. We have to do something."

Melinda spent the last 20 years building affordable housing with the Low Income Housing Institute. But the nonprofit couldn’t keep up with the demand. There are still currently 11,199 people who are homeless in Seattle and King County.

Melinda Nichols (right) is the first apprenticed female carpenter in Washington. (Courtesy Alice Lockridge)

Four years ago, Melinda and her colleagues had an idea: Why not build a bunch of smaller, less-expensive units to shelter people until they were able to find permanent housing?

They started building tiny houses across the county. Each one is the size of a tool shed, just big enough for a bed and a few shelves. Each house costs $2,700 in materials. A group of five volunteers can build one house over a weekend.

"I view them as a response to a homeless emergency," said Melinda. "I don’t look at them as a permanent solution. I look at them as a positive temporary solution."

Melinda helped build the little blue house that Hattie and Andrew now live in.

"I just looked around and said, 'Oh, I can definitely make this work. This is excellent.' I was excited," Hattie said. "It’s bigger than the tent we’ve been staying in. It’s going to be dry in the winter, which is the thing I was most excited about."

"If you come to Seattle, you will see tents all over the place. You will see homeless people everywhere, and it’s shocking and it's disturbing and it breaks your heart. This is an emergency. We have to do something."

Melinda Nichols

Hattie and Andrew live in a tiny house village of 50 people. Most of the houses are painted in bright colors. There are shared bathrooms, a community kitchen tent and picnic tables. The best part of living in the village, the couple says, are their neighbors — the same neighbors who volunteered to build a wooden porch for them.

"When you see that human beings of all different types can live together and will care about one another, it’s like a spiritual experience," Andrew said.

The couple has been helping manage their village since the residents have to put in community service hours instead of rent.

"I think I gained more self-confidence being homeless than I ever have in my whole life," Hattie said. "I stopped worrying so much what others thought of me because I realized that I had value in this community and therefore, wide society."

Hattie and Andrew have been living in their tiny house village for almost two years. They still don’t make enough to afford market prices. They’d eventually love to have more space and their own bathroom. But being in the village made them realize there is one thing they absolutely can’t live without: a sense of community.

"Knowing the people around you and having peer-to-peer support is life-changing," Hattie said.

She says each house Melinda and other volunteers build is more than four walls and a roof. It’s an opportunity for people like her to rebuild their lives and their communities.

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