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The popularity of tiny housing units for people experiencing homelessness increased during the pandemic but remains a relatively low-cost alternative to traditional shelters.
Ushered in by the era of social distancing, microshelters for people experiencing homelessness have become increasingly popular. One Washington-based company created a unit that can be constructed in less than an hour.
Established in 2017, Pallet is a public benefit corporation that builds small, prefabricated shelters. The standard shelters are 64 square feet and can be built in about 45 minutes, according to Patrick Diller, Pallet’s head of community partnerships. So far, the company has built more than 100 so-called Pallet villages across the country, including a village of 40 shelters in Georgetown, Delaware and nearly 200 shelters in Chico, California.
Traditional homeless shelters—or congregate housing—often feature many beds in a single large room or building. When maintaining personal space became key in mitigating the spread of Covid-19, alternative shelters took the spotlight.
“And then because of that, we were able to prove kind of the model and see the benefits and see the data that shows that these non-congregate options are much more effective at moving people out of homelessness,” Diller said.
People experiencing homelessness may avoid staying in traditional shelters for many reasons, such as concerns about safety, privacy, curfews or pet restrictions. That’s assuming there are beds available, which often isn’t the case.
“In those kinds of either tiny homes or pallet homes, there is the opportunity to shut a door behind you, which is incredibly important, especially if you’re a woman, or someone from a marginalized population that may be victimized in the current system,” said Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Pallet’s units are insulated, climate controlled and have locking doors. They can also withstand winds up to 110 mph and snow loads of up to 25 pounds per square foot, according to the company. The standard shelter starts at about $7,500 per unit.
To ensure the villages are set up in locations that will best serve residents, Pallet only builds shelters in areas that have access to public transportation, food, hygiene facilities, security and wraparound services to help residents move into permanent housing. Local community partners are typically responsible for those services.
Tacoma, Washington was an early Pallet client. In total, the city purchased 58 units that have housed more than 600 people, according to Matthew Jorgensen, a community resource analyst for the city.
In the spring of 2017, Tacoma declared a homeless state of emergency, and officials saw Pallet shelters as the quickest way to deploy shelters at a relatively low cost, Jorgensen said.
Those shelters are still in use today, though they’ve been moved inside a massive tent to protect them from the Northwest’s rainy winters. Tacoma is the only community that moved Pallet shelters indoors, Diller said, and the company has updated its design six or seven times since 2017.
The city works with Catholic Community Services to provide services for residents, and the two organizations collaborated on an additional eight or nine microshelter projects, Jorgensen said.
Residents are technically only supposed to remain in the shelters for 90 days, but Jorgenson noted that that timeframe isn’t always reasonable.
“As long as [residents] continue to work with their case managers … folks can stay essentially, as long as they need to, as long as they’re still engaged in the program, because we’re realistic about the lack of affordable housing.”
In Tacoma, roughly 80% of people move from microshelters to permanent housing, compared to five to 10% of those in traditional congregate housing, Jorgensen said.
While the timeline for building Pallet shelters varies by city, the company has deployed Pallet villages in as little as nine days in Sonoma County, California, and the site is still operating today, according to Diller.
As Tacoma hopes to increase its affordable housing stock and see more people move into permanent homes, it will decommission its shelters. The Pallet shelters at the stability site are likely to be the last to go, Jorgensen said.
One of the most important steps to a successful microshelter village is cluing in the greater community, he added.
“Letting folks know if a site is coming to the neighborhood, letting them know how they can be involved, and what kind of feedback they can give to the program and the city in this jurisdiction–I think that's been a big learning process for us.”
Funding for Pallet shelters can be sourced from many places, from a city’s general funds to American Rescue Plan Act dollars. But communities frequently run into challenges finding land, funding and the political will to build non-congregate housing.
It’s also critical that communities don’t view microshelter villages as an end-all solution, Whitehead cautioned.
“We need production. We need more affordable housing in this country,” he said. “We would hope that cities are also building housing–that is traditional housing–but we certainly support temporary housing in some of those smaller settings.”
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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