Two years ago, Luna Raine spent her days figuring out where she would sleep at night. She was terrified to find a place outside among the 1,300 other people who typically go unsheltered each night in the Mile High City. Instead, she braved shelters, where she says her belongings were stolen and she lived in constant fear of being assaulted. Long estranged from her family and new to Denver, she felt increasingly alone. “I never had people to rely on,” Raine says. “I’d never been a part of a real community.”
In July 2017, all of that changed when Raine and 11 others experiencing homelessness were chosen to move into Beloved Community Village (BCV), a pilot tiny-home project from the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC). Like similar programs in cities such as Seattle, BCV was launched to accommodate people who were routinely turned away by Denver shelters, including homeless couples and LGBTQ people. The latter included original villager Cersilla “Silla” Wolf, now 32, one of two transgender people who landed in BCV after facing months of abuse and rejection from shelters because of her gender identity. “I just laid on my bed and started crying because I knew I was safe,” Wolf says.
In the almost two years since the first residents moved into their own rent-free, 80-square-foot shelter on the program’s original plot in RiNo, nearly all have experienced significant personal progress: five have transitioned to permanent housing, and all but one has found a job or enrolled in school with help from BCV’s employment and low-cost housing services. An exhaustive, nine-month study by the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work even called the program a success, citing positive results for the occupants and the warm reception the village received from neighbors.
The list of plaudits is impressive, but the project still has its critics. The most vocal include some proponents of housing-first models—a concept that prioritizes placing people who are experiencing homelessness into permanent housing first, and then providing other supportive services. Sam Tsemberis, CEO of Pathways Housing First and the person credited with creating the concept in the 1990s, has asserted that BCV is a waste of resources and that Denver should instead focus on building affordable housing units. This is the approach that was taken in Utah, where the population of residents who are chronic homelessness decreased by 91 percent from 2005 to 2015.
Others have expanded upon that argument, noting the dwellings—which could serve up to 22 residents at a time when it launched—aren’t helping enough people in a city where the homeless population grew by more than 200 from 2017 to 2018.
Still, some city officials, including Mayor Michael Hancock’s deputy chief of staff Evan Dreyer, argue that any solution that improves the problem should be lauded. “It may not be the panacea that ends chronic homelessness,” Dreyer says, “but it’s definitely a piece of a much broader puzzle.”
One benefit of the tiny home village is that it was quick to build and inexpensive to operate. The estimated annual cost for BCV is about $250,000—cheaper than the average cost to build just one unit of affordable housing in Denver, which is estimated at $258,000. BCV also outshines housing-first models in another critical arena: community. “Too often, we create housing without spaces for human connection,” says Reverend Amanda Henderson, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, which has helped BCV in the search for its new spot. “People struggle when they feel isolated.”
The significance of social belonging has been backed by a bevy of research-based studies. As Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported, “a relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as increased mortality.” Accordingly, the CVC designed its pilot village to facilitate relationships among its residents and foster interdependency. “The community aspect is as important as the housing itself,” says Henderson.
While tiny homes might not solve Denver’s homeless problem, the CVC—which is inundated with new resident applications everyday—is dedicated to keeping the Beloved Community Village running. Private donors and foundations like Denver Homeless Out Loud have provided funding to help the project move beyond the pilot stage. On April 29, Denver City Council unanimously approved BCV’s move to a vacant, city-owned plot in Globeville. In mid-May, the villagers settled back into their homes in a new space at the junction of Washington, Pearl, and 44th streets. The site, which also has enough room to allow BCV to add eight more residences, will be the project’s home for at least a year and at most until 2022.
BCV’s move followed a contentious few months that divided residents of the Globeville neighborhood, with many standing in opposition to what they viewed as an undeserved disruption. Their passionate resistance compelled the city to search elsewhere for a plot in February and March. But finding another area with compatible zoning laws that also met all of BCV’s needs proved difficult. “As you work your way through [BCV’s] list of criteria, that list [of viable plots] got smaller and smaller,” Dreyer says. The unsuccessful search revealed a necessity for more flexibility in Denver’s zoning laws to permit a greater number of group-living arrangements like tiny home villages. “By changing the city zoning code, we would be creating more districts where this type of use would be allowed,” Dreyer says.
The city is now working to update the zoning code in anticipation of Mayor Hancock’s proposed Department of Housing and Homelessness. Dreyer says the pending department will address the needs of people across the entire spectrum of homelessness, offering everything from emergency to permanent housing options. “We know there are gaps and we don’t know exactly how to fill them,” Dreyer admits, “but we believe tiny homes can play an important and big role.”
As for Raine, she’s moved to Globeville with the rest of the village and has found steady work as a receptionist at BOA Technology. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of other BCV alums and graduate to apartment living, but for now, she’s thankful to have the community. “This isn’t just a place to sleep,” she says. “It’s a life.”