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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Nov. 29, 2023

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Minn. churches help homeless with tiny homes

New law allows building on faith community land


Minneapolis — Valerie Roy chose to paint the door on her new tiny home in Roseville a bright shade of cerulean.

“It’s called ‘Dignity Blue,’ as a matter of fact,” said Roy, 53, who was homeless for years but now rents the structure built on a church’s property. “This is the most dignified approach to long-term homelessness that I’ve seen in this country.”

Roy’s rented living quarters are at the forefront of the Twin Cities faith community’s efforts to help curb homelessness by building tiny houses on their land. They will get help from a new state law next year requiring municipalities to approve such “sacred communities” that meet a list of rules.

But some city officials wonder if the state’s list goes far enough. In Roseville, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church hosts two “microunits” under a temporary permit. But the city once tried to remove the homes, citing concerns about safety and dignity.

City Administrator Patrick Trudgeon said the city takes the homeless crisis “very seriously,” but the sacred community’s bathroom arrangements gave officials pause, for instance; residents have access to church bathrooms and showers across a parking lot, but also use in-home compostable toilets consisting of a container with absorbent material.

“Are we OK as the local government — or a society — to allow people to use those facilities just because they’re (formerly) homeless? I think we can be better than that, to be honest,” he said.

Trudgeon said there “really wasn’t any dialogue with cities” on the new law, and he hopes the state will re-examine its details.

Gabrielle Clowdus, founder and CEO of Settled, the Maplewood-based nonprofit that helped develop the Roseville settlement and a larger version at Mosaic Christian Community in St. Paul, said the legislation lets faith communities help solve the intractable problem of homelessness.

Clowdus said the toilets are akin to those at campgrounds, and the organization is working with an engineer on an improved model.

“We are very, very intentional about what we build,” she said. “If people still have questions … it just means we have more work to do to educate.”

An ideal arrangement

Clowdus, who researched homelessness while completing her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, said religious institutions are ideal sites for tiny home communities; aiding the needy is a tenet of every major faith, and places of worship are tax-exempt and have land that’s paid off, she said, which helps keep the homes economical.

At the Roseville and St. Paul sites, houses sit on trailers and were constructed by a faith community for about $35,000 each, she said. At under 200 to 400 square feet, they contain a lofted bed, counter, small table and closet with a commode. Site grading, electrical wiring and renovations to church common areas adds $25,000 to each home’s cost.

Residents, who pay about $200 in rent, have 24-hour access to a common kitchen, bathroom and lounge spaces in the church.

Key parts of the Settled model are permanency and building community, since many chronically homeless people don’t have strong social ties. So volunteers live in tiny homes on-site, too, to offer support and friendship.

The new law

Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, who sponsored the legislation, said she had “long, involved” conversations with the League of Minnesota Cities to ensure sacred community homes would be safe.

“I really love the idea of religious organizations being able to put their money where their mouth is when we talk about taking care of the folks who are less fortunate,” she said.

The legislation states who can live in the settlements; 33% to 40% of homes must be occupied by volunteers, for instance. It lays out specifications for building materials, electrical systems, setbacks and inspections. The homes must have a permanent chassis and be anchored to a foundation.

Homes can have plumbed, dry or compostable toilets. Hollins said compostable toilets are a better option than going in the woods, which some Mosaic residents said they did previously.

Hollins said she believes the metro will see more sacred settlements, since there’s “broad interest” from several churches.

‘A soft place to land’

The Mosaic settlement, which started in fall 2022 and has six homes, took three years to obtain city permits. St. Paul created a new interim ordinance to allow for it.

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The Prince of Peace settlement happened almost by chance in Roseville, said Michael Stetzler, president of the congregation.

“We were just sort of pushed into it by human needs and God’s calling,” he said.

The church, which had historically let unhoused people camp or park in their lot, learned from police that Roy needed a place to park her bus — her residence — last summer. By December, Settled told the church they had a tiny home Roy could live in and suggested she live at Prince of Peace.

Church officials considered it an interim arrangement in response to an urgent need, Stetzler said, adding that it “just didn’t occur to us” to mention it to the city.

The church added a second home for a couple and their daughter to live there as volunteers.

Last winter, after the church received a citation for the homes, city officials convened to discuss their concerns, including the homes’ lack of foundations and sewer and water connection.

“What’s being offered and provided, while a tremendous improvement … still falls short of what I think we should aspire to in providing even short-term housing,” Mayor Dan Roe said at the time.

They voted to make the church relocate the homes within two months, but changed course in late July, giving Prince of Peace an interim use permit until the year ends. The new law goes into effect Jan. 1.

Roy spoke at the meeting, calling her home “life-changing.”

“It’s a big step up from the nasty shelters, and I’ve seen my share,” she said.

Leaders at Prince of Peace said they will decide by Oct. 1 whether to continue hosting the settlement or focus on other affordable housing projects.

Trudgeon said Roseville officials support the church’s direction and understand “that the Legislature has spoken.” Still, he said, they wonder if the community’s arrangements are “the best for the person living there.”

He also questioned whether sprinklers might now be required in the church, since residents are using the common areas differently.

For Roy, her 180-square-foot home is a welcome change. She has a job at the St. Paul Farmers Market and — though she’s not Christian — a community surrounding her.

She feels safe walking to the church at night if she has to, she said.

“This gave me a soft place to land after 12 years of hardship,” she said.

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