An ambitious Janesville resident, Richard Snyder, has drafted plans for building tiny homes for homeless people, and whether city officials pursue his plans or others like them doesn’t really matter.
What matters is for city officials to recognize a new approach to homelessness is needed. Too many homeless people aren’t benefiting from traditional shelters and food pantries.
Some nonprofits, including the GIFTS Men’s Shelter, have helped reduce homelessness, and we don’t mean to diminish their contributions. We need them now more than ever, in fact. But a dearth of affordable housing is pushing more people toward homelessness, and too many of them are living in camps along the Rock River. One man, Dan Eccles, was found dead in the river near the downtown in August.
Eccles was a military veteran, and perhaps he would have been an ideal candidate for living in a tiny home. Indeed, several cities with tiny home developments, including Racine, cater exclusively to military veterans.
Both tiny homes and conventional shelters function as a stepping stone to permanent housing. The difference is tiny homes provide a level of privacy and sense of dignity that some homeless people, often military veterans, say they lose when entering conventional shelters. Tiny homes might attract people turned off by shelters.
Of course, it’s easy to imagine these tiny homes becoming a disaster if poorly managed. A reputable nonprofit organization would need to oversee any complex in Janesville and establish ground rules for living there, such as mandating participation in life-skill classes. The organization would need to vet housing applicants, requiring them to be employed or eligible for employment. Background checks would be necessary to keep out anyone with a violent criminal history. Residents also should have to pay rent as they move closer to independence.
Finding a good location for a project such as this would be critical. A proposal to put tiny homes in a residential neighborhood would likely be torpedoed before one can utter, “NIMBY.” The development also would need to be centrally located and near public transportation for access to jobs, grocery stores and medical facilities.
In Racine, the city council had to rewrite ordinances to accommodate a tiny homes complex for homeless veterans. City officials received assurances the complex wouldn’t become a drain on taxpayers. The vast majority of its funding came through private donations and only a small amount from the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
Janesville would need to be careful to avoid turning any tiny home development into government-subsidized housing.
But the unknowns and risk of failure shouldn’t stop Janesville officials from exploring this novel concept or Snyder’s plans. Snyder has a reputation for getting things done in Janesville, notably in helping to renovate Oak Hill Cemetery chapel, and this sort of project demands a doer at the helm.
There’s no need to rush things, however, and perhaps the next step is for the Janesville City Council to form a committee to study options.
Snyder could be among the members.