AUSTIN (KXAN) — An effort announced Tuesday aims to install around 200 fiberglass-aluminum tiny homes on the five-acre site in southeast Austin which has served as a state-designated homeless encampment for the past year.
The Pallet shelters
The homes will be built through a partnership with Austin nonprofit The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), along with Seattle-area company Pallet who has also built these shelters in areas around the country from Sacramento and Riverside, Calif., to Portland, Ore.
These shelters are manufactured in Washington by Pallet who employs people with lived experience in homelessness, incarceration or addiction and recovery to create the materials. All the parts can be set up as quickly as 30 minutes (without tools or with a very basic set of tools) and also come with locking doors and windows, shelves, a secure ventilation system, a 110 mph wind rating, materials resistant to things like mold and mildew and an expected lifespan for the materials of more than 10 years.
These shelters are made of fiberglass panels and aluminum framing. They come in two sizes, one that is 64 square feet and one that is 100 square feet.
The company says the goal with these units is to provide the people who stay there a “dignified, safe temporary shelter solution” while also providing them protection from the elements and allowing for safe distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Patrick Diller, the director of business development for Pallet, explained that demand for their shelters has been “exploding” recently.
“I think it’s two-fold” Diller explained. “COVID has really led to a lot of the demand and the need to separate people, and social distance people within sheltering, and also as cold weather starts setting in across the country, that combined with the need for non-congregate shelter has certainly given us an increase in demand.”
However, Diller noted, Pallet was seeing an increase in demand even prior to the pandemic because their model of having separated shelters has typically “shown better outcomes” than more traditional congregate shelters where all residents are housed under the same roof.
Making the shelters happen in Austin
The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), whose primary work is providing low-barrier employment to people experiencing homelessness, has been a steward at the state encampment since this summer and reached out to Pallet to help bring in shelters. People experiencing homelessness on a work crew for TOOF helped assemble the first two homes at the site Tuesday.
One of the people working to assemble these homes told KXAN, “I’d love to have one of these things.”
“It’s like the size of what they’d give you to live in Manhattan,” he laughed.
The two shelters installed at the site Tuesday are for demonstration, no one will be living in them yet. That is because they’re hoping when donors and community members see the temporary shelters standing next to the nearby tents at the encampment, it will be easy to see which temporary housing investment will be more durable.
“The foundation is working in partnership with the residents of the Esperanza Community to grow a transformation and transitional site where folks can safely access resources needed to move out of homelessness. We believe the safest and most dignified way for people to walk this path is inside, out of the elements. We are very excited to partner with Pallet and the Austin community to offer these shelters to the residents here.”Max Moscoe, Public Information Officer, The Other Ones Foundation
TOOF explained that the goal will be to have a $2 million capital campaign to fund these homes across the asphalt site where the nonprofit believes around 150 people experiencing homelessness are currently living. They are setting a goal of building 200 of these homes — 100 of the 64 square-foot homes and 100 of the 100 square foot homes. You can learn more about or contribute to this campaign here.
Pallet said the shelters themselves cost a minimum of $4,900 and can go up in price depending on size and options. TOOF explained that paying for the 200 shelters they are aiming to get will cost around $1.5 million, but they will need another half a million to add in other features to make these units work such as a water connection.
Pallet believes the cost for these shelters will be worthwhile as it is “considerably less expensive than other types of low barrier housing.”
Chris Baker, founder and executive director of The Other Ones Foundation, believes these tiny homes will be worth the investment as well.
At Esperanza Community, which residents have recently elected to call this site, Baker said the existing structures people are living in aren’t lasting.
“We struggle so much with the constant destruction of tents due to heat and rain and sun whatever,” Baker said, noting that most tents are designed for recreational use, not as a long-term dwelling.
Additionally, he noted it can be difficult to know who is actually at this site because many people come and go from the location.
“These actual structures, I think will help create some structure here that will ultimately keep the community safer,” Baker argued.
“The people we work with have a lot of deeply embedded trauma and there’s a lot of stuff in their history that kind of got them to this point, and these pallet shelters aren’t going to solve that for everybody,” Baker added. “But the journey to healing has to begin with having your basic needs met. And living in a tent full time — that isn’t really having your physical needs met.”
A changing camp site
This encampment site has been through plenty of changes over the past year, including electing its own council (with the help of TOOF) and voting to change the name of the site to Esperanza Community.
The camp sits on an L-shaped lot on land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation off US Highway 183 near Montopolis Drive.
This campsite was first opened on Nov. 7, 2019 as a place where people experiencing homelessness could go while the state cleared out encampments beneath overpasses at a time when shelters in the city were full.
This unique encampment became a reality because Governor Abbott designated the state land. Abbott tasked state agencies with some aspects of operating the camp and those agencies remain involved today. The Texas Department of Public Safety said it is still working with state and local partners to provide security at the camp 24/7. The Texas Department of Emergency Management has been tasked by Governor Abbott with managing donations and meals at the camp.
In June, TOOF took on the role of service coordinator at the encampment, then relocating its headquarters to the site in August. Since locating to the campsite, TOOF has brought in trailers with hot showers for residents, a resource center (which residents excitedly note has WiFi and TV), and caseworkers.
Starting last week, TOOF began offering medical care for residents at the site through CommUnity Care and mental healthcare through Integral Care.
Donald “Hippie” Montgomery, who has been a resident at the site since December of 2019, eagerly watched the installation of the new tiny homes on Tuesday. Montgomery serves as a resident liaison on the newly-created council for residents at Esperanza Community. He said residents of the camp have talked about the possibility of tiny homes “since day one.”
Montgomery believes tiny homes are “financially and logistically doable.”
“It preserves human dignity, it helps you keep the mess down, it is very much a win-win I believe, particularly at the cost involved,” he added.
Montgomery said he is happy with the tent he currently resides in at the community and doesn’t see himself living in one of the tiny homes because “sooner or later I am getting out of here.”
But he noted most of his fellow residents at Esperanza Community do want to live in the tiny homes.
“The tiny homes are perfect for the folks who have a little less horsepower and a little less ability to cope with the problems of homelessness,” Montgomery said.
A different kind of shelter
These new tiny homes are different than the type of shelter originally envisioned for the site when it was opened. In November of 2019, the governor’s office said this campsite would be a temporary solution until Austin coalition ATX Helps completed the sprung shelter it was intending to build.
Around that same time, ATX Helps had formed as a coalition of different groups in the community aiming to address homelessness, led by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Austin Alliance. The group was fundraising to build a sprung shelter — a tent-like structure where hundreds of people could sleep.
In January, ATX Helps told KXAN it was hoping to have this shelter built by March. In February the group said it had selected the state-owned lot off of 183 as the site to build this sprung shelter. The Texas Transportation Commission unanimously agreed to lease the site to ATX Helps. At the time, ATX Helps was expecting to pay the state $1 per month for ten years to lease the site.
But a spokesperson for ATX Helps, citing “public health and safety reasons” told KXAN on July 10 that its goal of opening “a large, temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness is not viable at this time. “
The spokesperson went on to say that as attention shifted to the COVID-19 response from early March onward, the lease negotiations with TxDOT for the campsite have “stalled.”
“Now, without the possibility of opening a shelter at this time, there is no immediate need to lease the TXDOT site at 183 in Montopolis,” the spokesperson said back in July, noting that the ATX Helps board would meet again in 90 days “with a focus on storage and family reunification.”
Initially, ATX Helps set out to raise $14 million for their effort. As of July 13, a spokesperson said the coalition had raised around $1.5 million through a combination of donations and pledges.
According to the July statements from ATX Helps, its board should have met at some point in October. KXAN is waiting to hear from ATX Helps about what happened at that follow-up board meeting, what will happen with the funds ATX Helps raised, and whether ATX Helps has future interest in leasing the plot of land off of US 183.
KXAN reached out to both ATX Helps and to Governor Abbott’s office asking about their future plans for this camp site and for a sprung shelter, we have not received a response.