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Tuesday evening Bozeman’s seasonal shelter is busy. People are picking their bunk and locker for the night with a volunteer who’s been on the job for a week.

People move back and forth between the kitchen and the space with a TV. Two guests have a small argument about missing money. A man passes by the tension, picks out a few National Geographic magazines and finds his spot in the crowd.

It’s an hour after check-in began. Most of the 44 beds will fill for the night. If they do, cots will be pulled from storage. Those who don’t fit will take a bus to a church four miles away, an overspill spot already used by women and families.

In the scene, it’s easy to miss a white board message behind the staff’s desk:

“11 days until the Warming Center closes. Do you have a housing plan?”

The winter refuge is the only shelter in Bozeman, one of the fastest-growing micropolitan cities, situated in one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. With that population tick, social service advocates have charted more people without a place to live.

The nonprofit that runs the center, HRDC, wants a year-round shelter. But that’s just one piece of the plan.

Working with a few churches, good souls and the Montana State University School of Architecture, the agency wants to create a tiny home village for locals who haven’t had a place to live in years, or in social work terms, people who are chronically homeless.

If HRDC pulls it off, it could become the first tiny home village in Montana.

“It would take a significant load that we’re seeing at the warming shelter, which should be emergency shelter but we see guests using it as their primary winter housing,” said Shari Eslinger, HRDC housing director. “It would be a place for people to call their own and be proud of.”

The plan is to have the village share land with a three-story community center with space for case workers, HRDC employees and rotating medical professionals. The top two stories would become the city’s new shelter.

Connie Campbell-Pearson, a deacon at St. James Episcopal Church and the woman who instigated this idea, kind of describes the village like a Utopia.

“If this were heaven, I would want a cottage industry, not only job training but enable people to produce something that would help the village,” Campbell-Pearson said.

It’s the traditional housing-first model — get people under a roof and it will be easier to keep them healthy and connected to resources like job and mental health services. But in this model, the housing has about 150 to 200 square feet of living space.

While new to Montana, tiny homes as a solution for homelessness have been popping up throughout the nation, from plywood structures on wheels in Washington, to canvas tents and RV cities in Texas.

Not everyone is on board. Barbara Poppe, who led the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during most of the Obama Administration, said a lot of these villages resemble World War II-era internment camps.

“It’s a very dangerous path. They’re often sheds that don’t meet basic housing requirements, running water, electricity,” she said. “You can get to shanty town rather quickly.”

Bozeman locals advocating for the idea say it’s different than what’s being done across the country. They will be homes, just tiny ones. As Kevin Thane, a member of the city’s affordable housing advisory board, put it, “Bozeman is at the point where the vacancy rate is near zero. Anything we can add to the supply is a plus.”

“Tiny homes offer the security of knowing you have a place to go. You don’t have to worry about where you’re going to sleep or who is sleeping next to you,” he said.

It’s now six days until the Warming Center closes. But HRDC has another timetable in mind: four months.

That’s how long the nonprofit has to run its ideal community past architects and engineers to see if the undisclosed land its under contract for will pencil out for the state’s pioneer village.

Good or bad? It’s complicated

Three days a week, Roy Dobson, 46, wakes up at 4:30 a.m., puts his sheets in a labeled tub and starts the trek from the Warming Center to one of his two jobs.

Dobson says he’s on more waiting lists than he remembers for low-income housing. And his need is a big ask — “room for me and my kids.”

Dobson moved to Bozeman with a gal and the relationship didn’t work out. Since the split, he hasn’t been able to find a place he can afford.

“I’ve spent $200 on rental applications — $25 here and there — and no one has called me,” he said.

Eslinger said according to HRDC estimates, there are 120 homeless people in Bozeman at any given moment.

For the first time since the Great Recession, the nation’s count on people without a place to live increased in 2017. That’s according to a study by the department of housing and urban development that found that 553,742 people were homeless on a single night.

That rise isn’t happening in unison.

Poppe, now a homelessness consultant, said more than half of the nation has seen a drop in people without a place to sleep. But western states like Oregon, Washington and California are deeper in the story Bozeman is starting to tell: prices in a limited housing supply are climbing.

“And there are more people coming into homelessness than are able to exit,” Poppe said. “It’s the perfect storm.”

Paired with that, federal funds are tight. So states and local groups try to create ways to respond. Poppe has advised cities like Seattle not to turn toward tiny home villages, but they’re moving ahead anyway.

“Maybe they think it’s the simpler solution,” she said. “It’s a shiny object right now, but in five years, have you invested in the long-term?”

Poppe said it’s not the size she has a problem with. It’s whether the homes and the land in which they’re placed are designed well. She said tenants also deserve protections, like a lease, so they’re not evicted without due process.

Those are elements HRDC says they plan to meet, and more.

Even so, there’s a risk that villages develop their own stigma, similar to knee-jerk reactions to trailer parks.

“If it’s not community-based housing and a child starts to recognize, ‘Hey, mom, that’s where all the homeless people go,’ it cements the idea that people who experience being homeless deserve a type of housing that isn’t mainstream,” Poppe said.

Small living isn’t new. Especially for low-income housing and shelters, which historically have been easy to spot.

Jill Pable, a professor of architecture and design at Florida State University, said they’re often built quickly in response to an immediate need and with uneven budgets. And unlike other niches within architecture, they’re a breed of buildings that designers don’t tend to specialize in.

She said all that means homeless service settings typically provide care without acknowledging the impact of trauma tied to living in survival mode and whatever led to that.

Pable has spent years studying the nation’s actions in housing disadvantaged populations. She wants to see a future of designs that better fit people who have ongoing physical or mental roadblocks.

If done right, tiny homes have a chance to do that, she said. They’re stand-alone units with the potential to include character on the inside and out. They can become a symbol to the person who calls it home.

“Architecture has long been known as a mirror of how we see ourselves, given the right circumstance that could be something that enhances dignity and self esteem,” she said.

A house is a house, no matter how small

In the core of student housing wrapped around Montana State University is a structure that stands out, in a good way. Following Bozeman-style appeal, the building is a mix of black siding and stained recycled barn wood, with sleek angles and lots of windows.

The less than 200-square-foot building is a prototype for the planned tiny home village — a starting point for the 30 to 50 expected to follow.

Bozeman Planner Chris Saunders said in short, the home works within the city.

“From the city of Bozeman view, if a house is on a foundation and complies to both building and zoning codes, we know it can work,” he said. “Now finding a piece of land to put it on is another question.”

State law allows landowners and neighborhood covenants the final say. And on top of that, a tiny home village has a better chance of surviving with community support.

HRDC has said the land picked out is close to its current seasonal shelter off Industrial Drive with few neighbors. As Campbell-Pearson described, people don’t want the village “in their backyards.”

“As big of hearts as Bozeman has, people still want their view and we’re accommodating that,” she said.

On Thursday afternoon, Ian Sobol, a grad student in MSU’s School of Architecture, was shoveling snow away from the house to make way for the porch. Inside, five more students prepared drywall.

The space includes lofted storage, a bathroom and shower, a kitchenette with a sink and place for a microwave.

Before the home’s entrance, there’s a rendering of what the village could become. Units with front porches and artwork are positioned in clusters around shared flower beds.

“I have homeless members in my life,” Sobol said. “And knowing this design could be replicated, it’s exciting.”

MSU Professor Ralph Johnson said there are a few reasons to go the tiny house route. For starters, it’s cheaper than concrete and steel apartments that need elevators, extensive sprinkler systems and fire escapes.

“And in a dorm-like setting, there’s no sense of ownership and I’d argue little sense of community,” he said.

Apartments could house more people. But Johnson said the MSU designs are expected to fit 25 units on 1 acre, “a pretty decent use of space.”

He said unlike trailer homes — which are less expensive but designed with the life expectancy similar to vehicles — his students’ tiny homes are built to last.

“That’s a 100-year building,” he said pointing toward the project. “It’s no different than a well-crafted house. Only it exceeds energy requirements.”

The initial grad students who worked on the project traveled to communities who built villages ahead of Montana. While none of the models they researched are exactly like what’s planned for Bozeman, Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington, is the closest fit.

In 2013, the village became one of the earliest modern-day tiny home villages in the nation. The dwellings include a bed, toilet and residents’ personal tweaks. The community has a shared kitchen, living room, showers, laundry, offices and meeting space.

Like HRDC intends for Bozeman, Quixote residents pay 30 percent of their monthly income. Program Manager Raul Salazar said that doesn’t sustain the village, so it’s constant fundraising and grant writing.

He said it took some time to build the community’s reputation so people knew what to expect when they moved in. Residents can have a criminal history but can’t have active warrants. They can arrive with an addiction, but one they’re working to heal from.

It’s a place to rebuild. Some residents may plan to leave in a few years, others could live out life there. It’s a model the nonprofit intends to replicate in two new villages.

Salazar said a big piece of the community is residents telling new arrivals how the community works.

“People start to see the possibility of having a calm, more stable life, and we try to connect them to what they need,” Salazar said. “What we’re doing works. We can’t house everyone, but if everyone got on board — tweak things here and there — it could make a huge dent.”

It’s a start

Montana local Jesse Johnson, 61, said he’s lived outside on-and-off for about five years.

With that countdown updated each day on the Warming Center’s white board, Johnson’s plan after March 31 is to “go back outside.”

He’s waiting to hear whether he got his blood pressure low enough to pass a health exam to become a truck driver again. He’s had jobs logging in Montana, working in oil fields in North Dakota and fishing in Alaska.

“Jobs weren’t a problem, but the housing — big-time problem,” he said. “You can’t look for a house 24/7, especially when you’re working.”

On Tuesday night, he talked about what he would do with his own tiny house. He wants some space for his bike and likes the idea of a loft for his bed and using what’s below as a living room.

But he doesn’t expect to be in Montana when the village is created.

“There’s been ideas before, I’m not counting on anything happening anytime soon,” he said. “If I don’t get that job, I’m going to hop on my bike and go.”

In fact, a lot of people in the shelter don’t seem to know the details around the proposed village – like where its progress is or the fact it’s intended for individuals, not families.

Campbell-Pearson said a tiny house village isn’t something Bozeman was ready for until recently.

“For a long time Bozeman misunderstood what homeless was here. Many envisioned a transient population who broke down on the way to somewhere else,” she said. “I don’t think anybody realized we have people who this is their home and there’s some reason they became homeless.”

These days, Campbell-Pearson spends a lot of time visiting churches and local civic clubs, really anyone who will have her, to share the message of tiny home villages.

Between people volunteering at the Warming Center, churches hosting morning coffee, and the local community kitchen Fork and Spoon, Campbell-Pearson said people are starting to get it, “a long-term solution needs to happen.”

“This is possible, and it can be done in a really good way,” she said.

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

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