“I’m a refugee in my own country.”
It’s 9am in Martin Place and Jase is sitting on the pavement. He’s got a bag, a blanket and a tiny staffy pup called ‘Brutus’ wrapped in a beanie in his lap. With his possessions bundled around him, he looks as if he’s just arrived from somewhere, and when I pass him on the street I imagine that he’s moments away from getting picked up by a mate. But I’ve seen him in this same spot every day for the last two weeks. Jase isn’t leaving; he’s got nowhere to go.
Today, I’ve summoned the courage to stop and talk to him about his experience of homelessness, but somehow we end up talking about business instead. Jase wants to start a microbusiness printing and selling postcards, but he’s finding it hard to get it up and running without any permanent place to live.
“Last week I had business meeting with a charity about funding, but it didn’t go well. I was erratic. I had all my stuff with me and I’d slept out in the suburbs the night before.” He pulls out a postcard from his bag. “I had more of these, I had thousands printed. But I left them in a shelter meaning to come back for them and someone stole them.” He gives me one as a gift. “You’re a nice girl, good luck with your story.”
Last week, Treasurer Joe Hockey said that to get a home you just need to, “get a good job that pays good money.” I look at the postcard. Here’s someone actively trying to change his situation. But it’s a catch 22, getting a job is impossible without a secure base, and securing a base is impossible without a job. The challenge seems insurmountable.
According to Homelessness Australia, Jase is just one of 28 000 homeless in New South Wales, and one of over 100 000 nationally. On any given night, one in 200 people are ‘sleeping rough’ somewhere in the country. Considering that the Legatum Index ranks Australia as the seventh most prosperous country in the world, these numbers seem unbelievable. What it is even harder to believe is the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s findings that homelessness rates are rising by 20% every year.
The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with a lack of resources, but perhaps with the wrong approach. The City of Sydney Council reports that almost 50% of Sydney’s homeless population is at some point referred to government supported housing. But getting this housing requires long waits, endless form filling and an ongoing compliance with Centrelink. It’s the kind of bureaucratic process that reduces the best of us to frustrated tears, let alone someone like Jase who sometimes finds it hard just to get through the day.
“I’ve been in and out of housing, its always the same – ‘sign lease, answer to the government, stay only for this long.’ It stresses me out more and more and then when I just pick up and leave it’s this huge lift off my shoulders.”
In 2010, the then shadow Prime Minister Tony Abbot said, “We can’t stop people from being homeless if that’s their choice.” But what kind of choice is there to make? The current housing system is hard to access, and once you’re in, the stress of trying to maintain this living agreement may be too much for those often dealing with personal, social, and mental disabilities. Its no wonder that people like Jase tend to fall out of the system and back onto the streets.
So what do the homeless need a house to be? These are the kind of questions that Jason Haynes and David Wooldridge were asking when they started The Tiny Homes Foundation in February this year. Jason says that they talked to groups affected and found a common desire amongst people experiencing homelessness first hand. “What do these people really need?... To provide not just a house but to provide them with an opportunity for independence. An opportunity to be self sufficient and self sustainable.”
To me, this represents the fundamental difference between the ‘house’ and the ‘home’. A house can be bus shelter if you need it to be, a home is something more psychological. It’s a haven from the prejudices of the public gaze, a private sphere where you can exist on your own terms, a quiet place of rest and self-expression. So that is what Jason and David decided to do; thet set out to provide something that not only meets basic needs but also something that reflects this fundamental understanding of the ‘home’ as an autonomous dwelling. They wanted to "home" the homeless. The challenge was to do all of this in an affordable, socially viable way. The answer? They’re building the traditional house in a minituraised format... they’re building tiny homes.
The homes contain a bed, a shower, a toilet and a sitting area, all within approximately eight square meters. To put that into perspective, that’s a house about the size of two king sized mattresses, or two thirds of a parking space. Essentially, these are houses that take up less space than your car. As challenging as this might seem, the program has made significant progress since its inception earlier this year. THF has been working with a team of architects and sustainability partners, and Jason says that construction of the first ‘Tiny Home’ prototype is underway. The next big hurdle will be securing land, a gruelling bureaucratic council process in which, at least so far, Gosford City Council is on board.
The project sounds promising even though it’s still early days. But I can’t help but wonder if THF will tackle the stigma surrounding the homeless or only ingrain it further. What would it mean to establish this kind of housing in the heart of the suburbs? Will they just create some sort of low cost caravan slum? Homelessness is a multifaceted issue, one that often includes mental, physical or social disabilities. Jason acknowledges that this isn’t a necessarily solution for everyone, and sometimes for whatever reason, the homeless can’t actually maintain the kind of independence they might desire.
But it’s not just about slapping together some huts and throwing people into them. THF is working with numerous other groups, a TAFE outreach program, counselling services and apprenticeship opportunities to really try and reconnect the homeless with the community. Its not paperwork, and it’s not Centrelink, but involvement in these services will be the basic requirement for anyone living in a tiny home.
While THF is the first of it’s kind in Australia, it’s modelled on similar housing projects in the Unit- ed States. These grew organically out of the Tiny Living movement, which was a response to the wide- spread housing crisis that began in America in 2007. Tiny living is about downsizing, living affordably and reducing your energy footprint, a concept that fits nicely with what these homeless charities are trying to achieve.
Luca Clemente of the Occupy Madison project in Wisconsin has been working with the homeless since 2009. “The Tiny Living move- ment has always been, at least from what I’d seen, more of a middle class movement of people taking stock of their lives and asking, do I really need all this ‘stuff’? And we were approaching it from the other side, with people who literally had nothing.”
Occupy Madison is currently ‘homing’ seven residents in the centre of downtown Madison. Luca says that for them, it was essential to place a small amount of residents in the heart of the city, as opposed to a larger project on the outskirts of town.
“It’s the isolation, it’s alienation, it’s the lack of beauty, the inability of people to meaningfully connect with their world that puts them into depression, addiction, petty crime and violence.” Like THF, community integration is paramount for Occupy Madison. Rather than paying any rent, each patron participates in community projects, a shared garden and weekly workshops. Luca says that they have just planted a mini orchard on the property and plan to provide free fruit to passers by.
This is why the aesthetics of these communities are so important. They create an environment that the neighbourhood actually wants to interact with. “Nobody wants a tent village or a tin shack village in their neighbourhood. But a really lovely village where all the houses are colourful and there are flowers, trees, plants and artwork, people would want that because it makes their neighbourhood more beautiful, ” says Luca. The novelty look of these homes is what sets them apart. With their slanted roofs, flowerpots and miniaturised verandas, The Tiny Homes are a quirky version of the kind of houses we’ve all grown up in.
And this helps the homeless too. They’ve got something to be proud of; something that for once makes them different for a good reason. “These people used to be thought of as a second class citizens and now they’re admired for the gorgeous little houses that they themselves have built, personalised and cared for, to me there’s no better therapy than that,” says Luca.
It all comes back to the idea of what it means to be ‘homed’. Tiny Homes are a place where the homeless can find personal pride and in- dependence, while also having a safe and supported means for reconnecting with society. It’s not temporary and it’s not conditional. It’s a small place in which they can not only feel safe, but also take back some control over their own lives.
Dr Fiona Allon, the head lecturer of Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, says that the psychological value we place on the home, its link to notions of integrity and dignity, epitomises a culturally ingrained perspective of home ownership that has existed in Western cultures for centuries. “Historically, you are only really considered to be a citizen if you are properly homed and have a house and have property.” She says that one of the reasons why we fear the homeless or think that they are so abject is because they go against these entrenched conventions of modern society. “A lot of the fears and the negative attitudes to the homeless stem from our commitment to these very specific ideals of a home.”
But maybe this ideal in itself is changing. The Australian dream of ownership has taken on a new form in the 20th century. Houses aren’t just homes, they’re ‘assets’ acquired through a disciplining system of bank loans, mortgages, and permanent full time work. Dr Allon says that here’s an enormous amount of pressure in living this way. “I think that people are recognising the sacrifices that come with this dream of ownership as a process of ever-increasing expansion. A lot of it amounts to isolation, a lot of commuting and a lot of debt. I think we’re at a point where we’re really re-assessing the cost of this ‘dream’.”
Ownership can affirm a sense of autonomy, but it doesn’t necessarily define the nature of a home. A positive sense of the ‘home’ is as much about the relationships we develop around it, and this is what the Tiny Living Movement is all about; downsizing the houses that isolate us in order to really connect with other people again.
And what does this mean for the homeless? Jason thinks that The Tiny Homes project will really be able to strike this middle ground between autonomy and connection. “Individuals with small homes have a different relationship with the sun, with the garden, a different relationship with the laundromat. There’s ways that they integrate and connect with the community even more-so than people with larger homes,” he says.
Could this project expand beyond helping the homeless? As Dr Allon points out, due to the current rent real estate climate in Australia, there are forms of homelessness in all social groups. “I’ve been really shocked to discover that a lot of university students from the University of Western Sydney actually live in caravans because they cant afford to live in rental accommodation near campus.”
Regardless of the size, having a house is about more than having a roof and four walls. It’s about feeling safe, feeling in control and ultimately, feeling a connection with the community around us. For homeless people like Jase, that’s a dream that always seemed too hard to achieve. For the rest of us, perhaps we’re starting to realise that our current system of home ownership might not meet that ideal either.
“Our vision is to get a great pilot program going, really change the lives of four or five people and prove that this kind of project can work. Ultimately the goal is the same, how can we help people to help themselves? Its not a hand out, it’s a hand up.”
It might not be for everyone, but tiny homes are gaining traction in Australia. Jason and David have a way to go until they move in their first resident, but they’ve got at least one volunteer already.
“Well if it really exists, if it does happen, you make sure you tell em’ Jase is keen.”