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Dec. 3, 2022

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Do tiny homes really work as a solution to homelessness? Here’s what the data show


When Robert Hernandez unpacked his meager belongings into one of San Jose’s celebrated tiny homes, finally getting a bed and access to a shower after more than a decade on the street, he had reason to be elated.

After all, tiny homes have become the hot new thing in the fight to end homelessness. The simple dwellings have multiplied across the Bay Area in the last few years and have been touted in splashy news conferences by everyone from the region’s big city mayors to Gov. Gavin Newsom as a salve to one of California’s thorniest problems.

But even after 55-year-old Hernandez moved into his tiny home on Mabury Road near Coyote Creek, it turned out he still had a long road ahead. For the more than 2,000 people like Hernandez who have tried out the Bay Area’s tiny home experiment, the single biggest measure of the model’s success is what happens next: Can a temporary stay in a tiny home be a final step on the path to permanent housing?

To explore that question, the Bay Area News Group spent four months following several tiny home residents and analyzed three years of data from Santa Clara and Alameda — the counties with the Bay Area’s largest homeless populations, and the two that have most fully embraced tiny homes — with the goal of determining how well the model works to get people into stable housing. The results could have implications throughout California and beyond as the tiny home movement continues to pick up steam across the West Coast.

Nobody has more riding on the success of tiny homes than people like Hernandez, who was accepted into the program in April after losing his possessions in an RV fire.

But he quickly found himself sitting alone in his new room with nothing to do but read and think, and he couldn’t stop dwelling on the San Jose homeless encampment he’d left behind. His “street family” — including two close friends with schizophrenia — was still there, living on a dusty, vacant lot near Columbus Park, among dozens of tents and RVs. Without him, who would make sure his loved ones ate? Got medical care? Stayed out of fights?

So he started going back to visit — and to sleep over. After he’d been away from the tiny home too long, they gave his spot to someone else, telling him they thought he’d abandoned it.

Hernandez’s story is one of many that showcase the countless pitfalls lurking along the path from tiny home to permanent housing. While thousands of hours of effort and millions of dollars have helped establish tiny homes as a promising solution even in some of the hardest cases, a close look suggests they remain a limited option in the face of the region’s overwhelming homelessness crisis — underscoring the immensely difficult nature of the problem.

This news organization’s analysis found:

  • Tiny homes don’t work for most participants: People moving out of tiny homes in Alameda County failed to find permanent housing nearly three-quarters of the time between June 2019 and June 2022. In Santa Clara County, people failed to find permanent housing more than half of the time.
  • But tiny homes work better than traditional homeless shelters: Stays in the two counties’ largest dorm-style homeless shelters failed to lead to permanent housing between 84% and 98% of the time. Tiny homes also tend to offer more services than other shelters, but as a result, can be much more expensive to operate.
  • More support helps: The data suggests there are several things tiny home programs can do to up their odds of success, although all of them boost costs — including connecting residents to case workers and giving them access to private bathrooms. Allowing people more time to get back on their feet also can help, as participants who stay longer than six months are more likely to move into permanent housing. But most tiny home programs are set up for stays of just two to six months.
  • It all comes back to the affordable housing shortage: There just isn’t enough permanent housing available for everyone leaving a tiny home. Bay Area rents are among the highest in the country and wait lists for subsidized units and housing vouchers are discouragingly long.

Back to the streets

Hernandez’s detour back to the encampment might seem confounding, but it’s more common than you might think.

In Santa Clara County, people exiting tiny homes landed in permanent housing just 43% of the time between June 2019 and June 2022. For people in Alameda County, the figure was even worse — just 27%.

Those results have left some activists and residents themselves deeply disappointed.

“I was kind of embarrassed,” Hernandez said after moving back into his tent. “I felt like I let myself down. It was a lot of negative feelings.”

Neither county tracks why participants fail to go from a tiny home into permanent housing, but anecdotal reports suggest some, like Hernandez, are unable or unwilling to commit to the program requirements. Others get stuck in their housing search.

In Alameda County, tiny home participants with a drug or alcohol addiction or a disability, people with no income and people who have been homeless for more than two years are less likely to get permanent housing. The data provided by Santa Clara County, which was less detailed, did not include that information.

Hernandez was one of 49 people to leave the Mabury Road tiny home site in San Jose over roughly two and a half years and either return to the street or lose touch with case workers, according to HomeFirst, which runs the site. That means more than a quarter of people who left the site ended up homeless again or went to destinations unknown. Just over half went into permanent housing, and most of the rest ended up in other temporary shelters.

Sometimes the deciding factor is as mundane as a cellphone. The nonprofit said it tried to reach Hernandez multiple times before dropping him from the tiny home program, but to no avail. Hernandez didn’t have a phone at the time, and it’s unclear if anyone went looking for him at his encampment.

“I wish we could have helped more,” said CEO Andrea Urton, “and if he had engaged, maybe we could have.”

Still, operators — who note they are working with a population that’s difficult to house, and doing so in a notoriously expensive rental market — insist the model has been a success.

“What I hear from the experts is that this is a brutally challenging task — to help people who have been out on the street, in many cases, for many years, in many cases suffering from severe mental health challenges or substance abuse,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who has been a major supporter of tiny homes. “So of course, there’s going to be a significant number who are going to fail, and the lesson is not ‘OK, let’s stop.’ The lesson is, ‘It’s going to take multiple interventions.’”

Hernandez is a key example. After more than three months back at the San Jose encampment, he got a second chance. He moved into another San Jose tiny home site, on Felipe Avenue, in mid-September. He’s still returning to the encampment to visit his friends, but he’s trying to spend more time at the tiny home this time around.

“Hopefully something comes through, a window of opportunity will open up and I’ll get some housing,” said Hernandez, who said health issues keep him from working. “I just gotta wait my turn, I guess.”

Some success

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, tiny homes have exploded in popularity among elected officials and homeless service providers under mounting public pressure to clean up the streets and replace unsightly encampments with orderly communities. Santa Clara and Alameda counties have more than a dozen sites between them, with more in the works. San Francisco opened its first tiny homes this year, and Los Angeles and Sacramento have also jumped on board.

They range from rudimentary cabins just one step up from a tent to roomy, modular units with air conditioning and full en suite bathrooms.

For some people, a stay in a tiny home can be life-changing.

Living in the Mabury Road site — the same place Hernandez left — helped 30-year-old Christopher Henderson stop feeling “homeless” and start feeling like himself again. He got off meth while he was there, focused on his night-shift job at the Fremont Tesla factory, and applied for more than a dozen apartments. He finally moved into an apartment in San Jose this past July, with a voucher that will help pay his rent for the next year. After that, he’ll have to make the payments on his own.

The transition to what he calls “normalcy” has been a bit overwhelming as he grapples with budgeting and bills — even buying groceries was an unfamiliar experience. He accidentally left the gas stove in his new apartment on because he wasn’t used to cooking for himself. But he couldn’t stop grinning as he unpacked an Amazon grocery order into his new fridge on a recent afternoon and debated whether the spinach he bought would be good in a smoothie.

“I guess I walk a little bit taller,” he said. “My skin has a little glow to it.”

People like Henderson who score a tiny home have a far better shot at finding long-term housing than those who stay in traditional homeless shelters. Santa Clara County’s largest shelter, the Boccardo Reception Center, reported its guests go from there into permanent housing just 5% of the time.

One potential reason tiny homes do better: Many programs, including San Jose’s, give residents regular, one-on-one access to a case manager who can help them find housing. That doesn’t happen at Boccardo.

Tiny homes, even basic ones, also provide more privacy and security than shelters.

Vaughn Foster recently found himself living in his car after splitting up with his partner and moving out of their Oakland apartment. The 30-year-old wouldn’t be caught dead in a homeless shelter — and he’s not alone. At St. Vincent de Paul — a shelter in West Oakland where dozens of people share rooms and have to vacate the building every morning — about 30% of the beds are empty on any given night.

For Foster, going there would have felt like giving up.

“I refuse to live like that,” he said.

About six months ago, he moved from his car into a tiny home community on Northgate Avenue in West Oakland after a friend told him about the program. The “community cabin” site, which opened in 2018, is very basic — cabins have no heat, AC or plumbing. Residents share portable toilets, and a shower truck comes twice a week. Each cabin has two cots and many people are required to bunk with a stranger, which has fueled complaints.

But Foster, who has been rooming with his brother, said because they have their own space and a path toward housing, it feels more dignified than a regular shelter. Now, he’s working multiple jobs — as a security guard, driving a forklift for the Port of Oakland and doing maintenance — and applying for apartments in the East Bay. He tends a garden of strawberries, mint and tomatoes to help manage his anger issues.

“As soon as I got in here, the people here were loving, like family,” said Foster, who sports dreadlocks and a giant, easy grin. “I just needed someone to be here and hear me, because I was stressing. And they played that role.”

Hard to scale

Still, even when they are effective, tiny homes can serve just a fraction of the Bay Area’s growing homeless population. In Alameda County, 940 people went through a tiny home program between June 2019 and June 2022. That’s less than 10% of the number of people documented as unhoused in the county’s latest survey. In Santa Clara County, 1,346 people have gone through tiny homes. The last count found a total of 10,028 unhoused people living in the county.

Scaling up tiny home programs requires significant resources, and when officials propose new tiny home sites, they’re often met with intense pushback from neighbors. San Jose approved six potential sites for new tiny homes in June. But city workers now want to back down from one — on Noble Avenue near the Penitencia Creek Trail — after backlash from local residents who don’t want tiny homes there.

One of the Bay Area’s most beleaguered sites opened in 2021 next to Oakland’s Lake Merritt. The collection of 65 pre-fab, fiberglass shelters made by the Washington-based company Pallet launched with a big news conference and much fanfare.

But an ongoing litany of problems is chronicled in internal city emails reviewed by this news organization, including fights and complaints from neighbors. Though officials promised to turn repurposed AC Transit buses into flush toilets and on-site showers for residents, nearly a year later, those amenities have yet to materialize, apparently due to delays in funding and contracting. In mid-September, the program operator said the buses would be installed in the next few weeks. “It’s not where it should be. The resources aren’t there,” said Jeanne Finberg, who lives nearby and is part of a “community council” that meets with the tiny home residents and the city to discuss issues at the site.

Things came to a head in March when a fire destroyed three tiny homes and damaged another, forcing residents to flee in terror as their walls melted. The Oakland Fire Department determined the units had been set too close together, creating a fire hazard. Six months after the fire, site managers were still in the process of spacing the dwellings farther apart.

Three miles away, another Oakland tiny home community experienced tragedy in April. Program security guard Barry Murphy, who was working the night shift, was fatally shot in his car outside the Mandela Parkway site.

Tiny home communities are supposed to be safer, more habitable alternatives to Oakland’s encampments, but incidents like the recent fire and murder show how easily the dangers of the street can follow residents.

The cost factor

Tiny homes come in many different sizes and styles.

Oakland’s bare-bones “community cabins,” like the one Foster lives in on Northgate Avenue, moved people to permanent housing at a rate of 28% — far short of the county’s goal of 50%, but still better than shelter outcomes. Add more amenities — specifically bathrooms — and that figure rises.

“Bridge housing communities” like the one Henderson occupied in San Jose, where residents share flush toilets and showers onsite, move people to permanent housing at a rate of 46%. And San Jose’s nicest tiny home model — which is more spacious and provides a full, private bathroom in each unit — has succeeded in transitioning people to permanent housing 54% of the time.

Advocates say when residents have their own bathroom, it helps give them the dignity they need to succeed. San Jose officials agree and plan to incorporate en suite bathrooms into future tiny home sites.

Access to services, such as caseworkers who help residents apply for housing and vouchers, also makes a difference. In Alameda County, services vary from one tiny home site to the next, but the county is working on adding case managers so each cabin site has one for every 25 residents, said Kerry Abbott, director of homeless care and coordination.

San Jose’s “bridge housing” tiny homes and its tiny homes with private bathrooms give residents regular one-on-one access to case managers.

Of course, those services make the models more expensive — and funds to run them come from a finite pool of federal, state and local dollars. At the low end of the spectrum, running Boccardo, the San Jose shelter, costs $17,155 per bed per year. Oakland’s Oak Street cabin site costs a little more — $22,368 per bed per year. On the pricier side, the San Jose tiny homes with en suite bathrooms cost an average of $34,200 per bed per year. The median rent for a studio apartment in San Jose runs $28,644 per year, according to Zillow — but of course, that doesn’t include case workers and other services.

With more money, tiny homes could be more successful, Abbott said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alameda County poured all the resources it could — including emergency federal funding — into housing homeless residents who were sheltering temporarily in hotels. As a result, nearly three-quarters of the people who left those hotels went into permanent housing. But the county’s tiny homes haven’t seen the same infusion of resources — or level of success.

Ticking clock, nowhere to go

Bay Area tiny home sites all struggle with one large, limiting factor: They’re meant to be temporary. Many programs give residents half a year or less to move into permanent housing before their time is up and they have to start applying for extensions — which program administrators can grant or deny at their discretion. Thanks to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, some lucky residents got a year, maybe two, to secure stable lodging in a market where even middle-class renters with full-time jobs struggle to get by, in a region that’s hundreds of thousands of housing units short.

“We simply don’t have the number of housing resources that we need,” said Abbott, Alameda County’s director of homeless care and coordination.

Linda Mok, 35, said she lived in a tiny home on Miller Avenue in Oakland for about six months before she was told her time was up, even though she hadn’t found housing. Now she’s back where she started — living on East 12th Street in a long row of tents and plywood shacks that has seen multiple fires over the past few years.

“The six months just went by so fast,” Mok said.

Of the five tiny home sites sponsored by San Jose, just one — on Felipe Avenue — has a hard six-month cutoff set by Caltrans, the property owner. That site has the lowest success rate of all the city sites, getting just 32% of its occupants into permanent housing.

At other sites, program operators say participants can get more time if case managers deem they are proactively working on their housing plan. If not, residents can be moved to a regular shelter — losing the support of their case manager — or end up back on the street.

For Henderson, the former San Jose tiny home resident who recently moved into an apartment, more time at his site made a life-altering difference.

After nearly two years in his 80-square-foot unit just barely big enough for a twin bed, using a shared bathroom he had to go outside to access, he was feeling discouraged by a flurry of rejections from landlords.

But thanks to the extra time, he finally got a text with good news: One of his applications for an apartment had been accepted.

The problem with short stays, advocates say, is that many unhoused people are so sick and traumatized from years on the street that they’ll never be able to transition to regular housing. To solve that issue, some parts of the country are turning tiny home communities into permanent dwellings.

Since 2015, Alan Graham has run a community of about 540 tiny homes and RVs in Austin, Texas, that has served as a model nationwide. Residents can live there, paying about $230 to $440 a month in rent, forever. About 80% of his residents are on a fixed income. Their average age is 58 years old, with nine years of prior homelessness.

“They’re not going to get fixed up and go to work at McDonald’s or Walmart the way that people think,” he said. “So that scattered site transitional model is a failed experiment with the chronically homeless.”

The idea of tiny homes as long-term housing has been explored but hasn’t caught on widely in the Bay Area. At CrossWinds Church in Livermore, which operates 28 tiny homes where residents pay 30% of whatever income they earn in rent, people can stay as long as they want. And in San Jose, the city’s tiny homes with private bathrooms are built to federal affordable housing standards — meaning they could eventually become permanent housing, Liccardo said.

The bigger issue

Ultimately, a larger question hangs over the Bay Area’s experiment with tiny homes: In a region where more than 30,000 people lack access to stable housing, is the homelessness problem too complex and gargantuan for any size intervention to solve?

When Angelique and Manuel Ortiz moved into their tiny home on San Jose’s Rue Ferrari in April, Angelique lovingly decorated the unit in purple, her favorite color. The space is small, but it has room for a double bed, a table and chairs and shelves for their clothes — plus a full, en suite bathroom. A path leads from their front door to a community building with a shared kitchen.

At first, Angelique and Manuel were optimistic. Manuel applied for jobs doing manual labor, Angelique started taking classes to finish her high school diploma, and they met with their case manager and began their housing search.

But months went by with no progress. On a recent afternoon, with their six-month anniversary in the tiny home fast approaching, Angelique confessed that she’s terrified she and Manuel will be dropped from the program before they find housing. Just in case, the couple bought a cheap car from a friend so they’ll have somewhere to sleep at night.

“I don’t want to go back out there. That was the whole point of coming in here, so I didn’t have to go back out there,” Angelique said. “So I’m starting to get really worried about what’s next.”