A Wichita group is looking to take the “tiny home” trend to the streets.
Two longtime volunteers with Wichita’s homeless population have a vision: tiny homes to house the homeless.
They have significant obstacles to overcome before that becomes a reality, perhaps most of all becoming compliant with city building and zoning codes.
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But the two, who lead Let’s Rock and Roll and Change the World, are undeterred by that challenge.
“I would like to have the city get behind us – that would be fantastic,” said Kimberly Sims, one of the organizers of the group. “What a way to get Wichita, Kansas, on the map – to have a tiny-home village.”
‘Why not Wichita?’
About five years ago, “Breakfast Bob” Johnson decided it was time to stop enabling homelessness.
He had fed breakfast to the homeless in downtown’s Naftzger Park for more than 20 years, and he realized the crowds were only getting larger as the years went on.
“We were feeding a man for a day, but we weren’t teaching him any skills to help him get out of that, get off the streets,” Johnson said.
“That’s when we decided to change our focus to more of a solution-based approach to homelessness. What do we need to do to solve the problem of homelessness?”
So Johnson started Let’s Rock and Roll and Change the World, which is affiliated with New Covenant United Methodist Church. He soon linked up with Sims.
“She asked me one question – she goes, ‘How big do you want this to go?’ and I said I want to change the world,” Johnson said.
She asked me one question – she goes, ‘How big do you want this to go?’ and I said I want to change the world.
Bob Johnson, founder of Let’s Rock and Roll and Change the World
The two began dreaming of a micro-village that would house Wichita’s homeless and link them up with the support services they need.
They drew inspiration from a successful nonprofit in Austin called Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
The Austin group recently completed construction of a $14.5 million, 27-acre tiny-home village after 12 years of planning.
Its founder and CEO, Alan Graham, said he thinks a similar project could be accomplished in Wichita in about five years.
“In Wichita … you now have a model,” Graham said.
“They need to gather up the thought leaders and the community leaders and pile them into an airplane and bring them down here to see the possibilities.
“That will absolutely, without question, overnight transform your community’s thinking.”
Building a tiny-home village similar to Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ will not happen overnight, Graham said, “but it’s very, very doable.”
Johnson and Sims share in that enthusiasm.
As Johnson says: “Why not Wichita?”
Planning for a village
The group’s plans for a tiny-home village is a combination of the philosophies of the city’s “Housing First” program and Habitat for Humanity.
The initial plan is to purchase land that could accommodate 36 tiny homes, built and maintained with the “sweat equity” of its potential residents.
Johnson and Sims have looked at various tracts of land available throughout the city – around the former Joyland site, around 29th and Meridian, around downtown – but nothing is finalized.
Inside the tiny-home village, they plan to construct a community kitchen, chapel, community garden, laundry room, community showers and even a computer lab.
The tiny-home village would include on-site medical, dental and mental health care services.
Village residents would be taught job skills, and essential services such as medical, dental and health care would be provided on-site, Johnson said.
“We have taken painstaking hours in looking at other successful programs, taking the best out of those programs and intertwining them in what our programs should be looking at,” Sims said.
But before they can build a village, they first need to get a test model built.
Let’s Rock and Roll and Change the World is currently raising funds to be able to build a trial tiny home. It estimates a fully equipped tiny home of the size they are looking at – 100 to 400 square feet – would cost around $10,000.
Once the home is built, the group hopes that seeing a tiny home in person might garner community support, Johnson said.
They hope it might also be enough to sway Wichita city leaders’ opinions, Johnson said.
“I think we need to be a trend-setter – build one and get the city leaders down here to look,” he said. “I don’t know if that would tip the scales or not, but I’m willing to give it a try.”
Attempting to solve homelessness
Danny Michels, 33, knows about building tiny homes.
He has spent the past month or so building one in the parking lot of New Life Thrift Store, near Pawnee and Meridian.
Michels, who is self-employed as a carpenter, struggled with homelessness throughout his 20s, he said.
“If you ask any one of these guys who have had to do this or is homeless, and you say, ‘Hey, do you want to sleep under the bridge or would you like a little apartment, a little tiny house to live in?’ – every time someone’s going to say, ‘Give me the tiny house,’ ” he said.
“Who wouldn’t appreciate a place to store their stuff, lock their stuff and know it’s going to be safe when they get back?”
Who wouldn’t appreciate a place to store their stuff, lock their stuff and know it’s going to be safe when they get back?
Danny Michels, tiny-home builder who has struggled with homelessness in the past
The problem: Homelessness can’t be solved simply by putting people in tiny homes.
“You can’t just take somebody who’s been on the streets for several years and just plop them down in four walls and go ‘Here you go, here’s a house’ – it’s not going to work mentally,” Sims said. “They need services wrapped around them.”
Wichita City Council member Janet Miller says tiny homes have been “on (her) radar and on staff’s radar” for a while now.
The main issue with the concept of a tiny-home village is that there are many unknowns – especially when dealing with a first-time fundraising group, Miller said.
“My fear is that well-meaning individuals might think that a simple structure for a homeless person could be a simple answer,” she said. “It’s a much more complex problem to solve than that.
“While I think there’s potential to address some housing concerns with these tiny houses, it would need to come with all of what we call the supportive wraparound services that many people who are experiencing homelessness and who have for long periods of time really need.”
What Wichita does not need, Miller said, is for a group to come in and construct a tiny-home village, only to run out of money operating it and abandon the development.
“What we don’t want to create is something that could easily become, either in appearance or in reality, something like a poor shanty town,” Miller said. “That is not in any way helpful for people who are in need of both housing and mental health services, medical services and substance abuse services.”
Michels said he agrees with Miller’s opinion.
We don’t want these things to turn into a ghetto.
Danny Michels, tiny-home builder
“What’s really difficult is to get the existing landowners to be open to the idea of having things like this,” Michels said. “If you put it in the wrong place, and if people get the wrong vibe from it, they’re going to view it as a menace.
“That’s what I think is the big holdup in Wichita: Where do you put them?”
The problem with a tiny-home village does not necessarily stem from building the homes, said Richard Meier, chief building inspector with the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department.
As it reads now, city code requires homes to have at least 150 square feet of space for one occupant. The city’s housing code further mandates homes must have separate restroom and kitchen facilities, among other things.
The land the tiny-home village would be on must also be zoned appropriately, and as it stands, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Unified Zoning Code does not specifically address how a tiny-home village would be zoned.
Though they acknowledge the potential difficulties ahead, Johnson and Sims say they will keep planning for and dreaming of the tiny-home village. Anything, they say, is possible with “an awesome God.”
“We don’t want to limit ourselves with the ability of what is possible,” Johnson said. “Anything is possible.”