Across the nation, it’s considered a trend. In the Chippewa Valley, it could be a chance for a new life.
There is currently no set definition for what qualifies as a “tiny house,” but during the past few years, the trend in residential living has come into fashion in the United States. Tiny houses are described as homes generally about 500 square feet or smaller designed for individuals and families to leave less of a footprint on the environment.
Along with this trend has come popular TV shows like “Tiny House, Big Living,” “Tiny House Nation,” “Tiny House Hunters.”
However, in the Chippewa Valley, these homes are being built out of necessity instead of for fashion.
For many years in Chippewa Falls, The Harmony House (Chippewa’s area homeless shelter) was a place the city’s homeless population could congregate for food, water, shelter and guidance. However, in 2014 the shelter closed and the homeless of Chippewa Falls had nowhere to go when they required assistance.
Seeing a now apparent discrepancy in the aid being provided to the homeless in the area, the Chippewa Falls Mission Coalition held a public forum in September 2014 to brainstorm ideas for how to aid the city’s homeless population now that the shelter had vanished.
That is when the idea of building tiny houses for the homeless was born.
3 steps for giving hope
The idea of building these tiny homes in the community was named “Hope Village.” Mike Cahoon, the coordinator of Hope Village and Youth and Outreach Pastor at Landmark Christian Church, said the project came from necessity.
“Nothing was happening as far as sheltering the homeless, so the Chippewa Falls mission coalition took about a year, discussed how they could help, and the idea for new housing and career opportunities started,” Cohoon said. “The process started off slowly but it really has started to gain traction in the community over the past few years as we’ve been working on it.”
Cohoon said the project has three main steps involved in it so the individuals brought into the program have a clear path to success.
The first step in providing temporary housing for the homeless is helping them find income. Many homeless individuals don’t have the means to hold a steady job, so Cohoon said giving them a place to come back to at the end of the night is the first step in helping them find employment.
The second goal of placing individuals in tiny homes is helping them connect with different resources.
Many of the tiny houses in the Chippewa Valley are located at churches, and these churches often can offer the homeless resources they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. When individuals are brought into these homes, they often have access to health resources such as routine medical care and doctors and nurses for the first time in quite a while. So, being able to attend to their health is another step in the right direction to improving their quality of life.
An often overlooked resource is access to mental health professionals.
Not having a place to rest your head at night is a burden a good population of Wisconsin does not have to bear, and those who do often are left with emotional wounds that can trump their physical ones. So, when these individuals enter the tiny homes and have resources to mental health professionals they can begin to address the traumatic emotions that often plague the homeless population.
The third and final goal Cohoon said the tiny house project has is to help the individuals who graduate from the program find permanent housing. Cohoon said the churches and institutions that construct and host these tiny homes often connect the tiny house occupants with the Chippewa Housing Association and other groups to find housing for the homeless once they thrive in their newfound stability.
Cohoon said the tiny houses are the middle man for the homeless to go from not having a place to go at the end of the night to finding a new place to dwell permanently.
“The end game is that the individuals living in these homes find permanent housing after graduating from the tiny house program,” Cohoon said. “That’s been the goal since the beginning and we are still working hard towards achieving that goal.”
Planning took a little more than a year. Construction in Chippewa Falls started in 2016.
Different homes, different needs
As of September 2018, there are six units in the Hope Village program in the Chippewa Valley. Five of these units are classified as tiny houses and one is a camper that was utilized as a tiny house during the summer of 2018. Two of the units are located at Trinity United Methodist Church, two at Chippewa Valley Bible Church and two at Landmark Church in Lake Hallie.
Since the fall of 2016, the tiny house program has seen 21 different individuals. Currently there are five people living in these units — one is a family of three and other two are occupied by individuals, Cohoon said.
Cohoon said all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many generous volunteers throughout the Chippewa Valley.
A prime example of this occurred this past July when construction began on a new tiny house in the area, the result of a collaboration between Hope Village and Klein Hall, a state program for homeless veterans transitioning into new jobs and residences.
While the manpower is being provided by veterans through Klein Hall, a local business and a local college are chipping in as well.
The Chippewa Falls Elks Club donated $6,000 to front the cost for the building materials for the tiny house, while students from Chippewa Valley Technical College built a trailer that will be the base for the new home.
A Klein Hall veteran since November 2017, Tom Clemons said the home will have four beds and will be for a displaced family or displaced veteran with children.
Clemons said the home will be 20 feet by 7½ feet and 13½ feet tall, which will make it the largest home in the current roster of units in the Hope Village program.
A common stigma attached to the homeless population is they are dangerous or unsafe to be around. However, Cohoon said the individuals who make up the program are carefully selected and the city’s residents should not be concerned if a tiny house is in their area.
“They’re familiar now with the vetting process, making sure people in the houses aren’t a danger to the neighborhood … we haven’t had any incidents having to call authorities in,” Cohoon said. “I think we’re putting people tiny houses that are looking to make progress.”
Another recent development in the tiny house program is earlier this month the Chippewa Falls City Council unanimously granted a permit to build two tiny houses at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Chippewa Falls.
One of the new tiny home sites is a half-mile from both Chippewa Falls Senior High School and McDonell Central Catholic High School, and in a show of support officials from both institutions wrote letters in support of the construction of these residences.
With the construction commencing on multiple tiny houses, the Hope Village project is continuing to grow every year in the Chippewa Valley, but Cohoon said the goal is to not have these homes be spread across the city.
“I think the idea all along has actually been for us to have all of these houses on one piece of property,” Cohoon said. “But that idea has evolved over time. It might be a partnership with churches because that’s worked out very well, but at some point we’d like to put 10 to 12 houses on a single lot to become a village. It will have a central building, bathrooms, showers, a community kitchen and a community storage area.”
In addition to forming a new community for the city’s homeless population to thrive and grow in, Cohoon said the area will also serve as a tool for the occupants to learn and grow.
“Having an area like this would be a great opportunity for these individuals to learn job skills,” Cohoon said. “We could have teachers from Chippewa County come in and teach welding, woodworking or other skills to help prepare them for finding a job in the community that would give them some stability.”
Since the Hope Village project’s inception in the fall of 2014, there has been significant progress in addressing the issue of homelessness in Chippewa Falls. While the project is still developing and evolving, hope is still on the horizon for the city’s homeless population.