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Photo: Low Income Housing Institute
Six tiny houses share a common deck in Lake Union Village, Seattle, Washington.

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who spend their time trying to make life better for everyone. I know how easy it is to get distracted by headlines featuring people doing the opposite, but I find that focusing on the helpers is better for my mental health. The following article shows how well things can work when a city tries to make life better for everyone by helping those most in need.

At the community development magazine Shelterforce, Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), reported on a hopeful Seattle initiative.

“In 2017, I wrote a piece for Shelterforce on Seattle’s then-emerging effort to build tiny houses to shelter homeless families, couples, and singles. Over the past three years, Seattle has led the country in piloting this response to the homelessness crisis. …

“Tiny house villages are an effective crisis response to homelessness and have proven to be a rapid, cost-effective response with better outcomes than traditional shelters. …

“When Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in January 2018, she authorized the first tiny house village exclusively for homeless women. The Whittier Heights Village is located on property owned by Seattle public utility City Light and shelters single women, same-sex couples, seniors, pregnant women, and women with pets. The mayor also funded two additional villages: True Hope Village, which is church-sponsored and focuses on people of color including families with children; and Lake Union Village (LUV), for singles and couples, located on a city-owned parking lot. All three villages were planned, constructed, and opened in 2018, and together shelter 155 homeless people.

“How did this happen so quickly? The mayor prioritized the need. … A village requires anywhere from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet of vacant land, depending on the number of tiny houses and common facilities to be placed there. There are suitable urban infill sites zoned for residential and mixed use, as well as larger commercial and industrial sites.

“It takes careful research and help from local government to identify good sites, and we were quite surprised to find a large inventory of publicly owned underutilized and surplus sites held by the city, county, state and even the Port of Seattle. We also found multiple nonprofit, private, and church-owned properties that could be used. Nonprofit housing organizations own land that they hope to develop in the future, and these can be used on an interim basis, from two to four years, for a tiny house village.

“Each village needed only four to six months’ lead time to be constructed. … There are 15 to 34 tiny houses at each village, plus shared community kitchens, community meeting space, counseling offices, storage, donation huts, security huts, and plumbed bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.

“An effective partnership between multiple departments in the city and LIHI was key in setting up the villages. … LIHI staff led the effort to raise funds to construct the tiny houses, reaching out to hundreds of donors and volunteers. We applied for permits, led work parties to build the houses, and developed the management and staffing plans.

“We undertook extensive community outreach to neighbors, businesses, and the public, working alongside city staff, including the Seattle Police Department and the Human Services Department, which funds LIHI for operations and services. While not everyone was supportive, they were all provided detailed information on the management plan and code of conduct, and were invited to submit their names to serve on a community advisory committee. Each village, staffed 24/7, has Village Organizers and dedicated case managers to assist people in obtaining long-term housing, employment and services.”

At Shelterforce, here, you can read more details, including Lee’s assessment of how the tiny house approach compares with other initiatives to address homelessness.

Photo: Andrew Constantino
A row of tiny houses in the Georgetown Village in Seattle. I like how residents show their love for their place.

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Photo: Oluwatoyin Adewumi/BBC
Tanitoluwa Adewumi playing chess.

That today’s media has a downside needs no elaboration, but think about the good that sharing stories can do! In this case, a young asylum-seeker in a New York City shelter gained attention for chess playing and, when the word got out, ended up with a home for his family.

Here’s what I first learned from the BBC. “Tanitoluwa Adewumi left his home in northern Nigeria with his family in 2017 because of the ongoing attacks by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. He moved with his family to the United States, but is currently living in a homeless shelter with his mother Oluwatoyin, father Kayode and older brother.

“Despite the challenges, when Tanitoluwa showed an interest in playing chess, his mother made sure that he could attend the local club. He has been playing for just over a year, but hours of practice and hard work have paid off – he has just won top prize in his age category at the New York State Chess Championship.” More at the BBC.

And here’s what happened after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spread the word. This piece was published March 23. “Tanitoluwa Adewumi, age 8, skidded around the empty apartment, laughing excitedly, then leapt onto his dad’s back. ‘I have a home!’ he said in wonderment. ‘I have a home!’

“A week ago, the boy was homeless, studying chess moves while lying on the floor of a shelter in Manhattan. Now Tani, as he is known, has a home, a six-figure bank account, scholarship offers from three elite private schools and [more]. …

“I wrote in my column last weekend about Tani as a reminder of the principle that talent is universal, even if opportunity is not. A Nigerian refugee who had learned chess only a bit more than a year earlier, he had just defeated kids from elite private schools to win the New York state chess championship for his age group. …

“A GoFundMe drive raised more than $200,000 for Tani, his parents and his brother. A half-dozen readers offered housing — in a couple of cases, palatial quarters. Immigration lawyers offered pro bono assistance to the Adewumis, who are in the country legally and seeking asylum. …

“The family settled on one of the more modest and practical housing offers: An anonymous donor paid a year’s rent on a two-bedroom apartment near Tani’s current school. The apartment is clean, comfortable and freshly painted, without being luxurious, and the Adewumis gaze adoringly at their new kitchen.

“ ‘I want my mom’s cooking again!’ Tani mused as he explored the apartment. It was bare, but another donor had offered furniture, sheets and towels. Someone else was sending 100 chess books. …

“The Adewumis have decided that they will not spend a cent of the $200,000 GoFundMe money on themselves. They will take out a 10 percent tithe and donate it to their church, which helped them while they were homeless, and the rest will be channeled through a new Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation to help African immigrants who are struggling in the United States the way they were a week ago. …

“ ‘I’m a hardworking guy,’ Mr. Adewumi explained. He has two jobs: He drives for Uber with a rented car and sells real estate through Brick & Mortar. Someone has now offered him a free car so that he can keep more of the money he makes driving, and Tani’s mom was just offered a job as a health care aide at a hospital. …

“The family was tempted by the offers of full scholarships at top private schools. But Tani and his parents decided that while he might accept such a scholarship for middle school, he would be loyal and stick with the public elementary school, P.S. 116, that taught him chess and waived his fees for the chess club. …

“ ‘God has already blessed me,’ Mr. Adewumi told me. ‘I want to release my blessing to others.’ ”

More  at the Times.

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Photo: Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Malika MacDonald is director of the Amal Women’s Center, which provides shelter for Muslim women and children in need of temporary housing.

When I was working at the central bank, we had a Hubert Humphrey Fellow visit us from Bahrain. One aspect of America she was studying was homelessness. She said there was no homelessness in her country. She said families would never let it happen; they would take people in.

Having no way to know whether that was true in every case, I was nevertheless intrigued. Was it something about the culture in a Muslim country?

One thing I do know is that in this country, alas, Muslim women and children like other women and children, sometimes find themselves in need of temporary housing. That was the impetus for a new center in Boston, the brainchild of an Egyptian-American college student.

Lisa Wangsness wrote about the initiative at the Boston Globe. Here is the part of the article that touched me the most.

“The project began six years ago, when Mona Salem, then a 20-year-old Egyptian-American college student, was trying to help a young Muslim friend who wanted to escape a foster home where she felt unsafe.

“Salem thought her friend would feel most comfortable in a Muslim-run shelter for women, but soon discovered none existed in Boston. So she began raising money to start one, and teamed up with [Malika MacDonald, the national director of the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA’s Transitional Housing Network.] …

“Donations poured in from every direction. Dishes and pots and pans for the kitchen arrived from families affiliated with the Framingham and Wayland mosques. A man offered his Home Depot credit card to pay for lighting. Various groups and individuals sponsored each of the bedrooms, furnishing them with bright-colored bedding and art for the walls.

“Salem said she was near tears when she saw the finished house the other day.

“ ‘That place was a dump when we first got there, and now it’s beautiful — absolutely beautiful,’ she said. ‘That says a lot about . . . how strong we are as a community to help one another.’

“Help arrived from beyond the local Muslim community as well. An artist in Texas sent an Arabesque Moroccan ceiling medallion for the living room. A board member of the interfaith group Kids4Peace Boston donated a lacquered dining table and banquette. The founder of a planned shelter for transgender people in Indiana sent along bathroom towels, MacDonald said.”

I suspect many of those donors know what it’s like to feel different and look for comfort.

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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This story comes from Heather Dockray at Good magazine (by way of the Huffington Post). It’s about a life-affirming project in Atlanta.

“Good, local, nutritious food shouldn’t be expensive,” she writes, “and shouldn’t only be enjoyed by people who can afford it.  A homeless shelter in Atlanta decided that their residents desperately needed access to healthy food — but instead of sourcing out, encouraged residents to grow their own. Now, the shelter is home to a huge rooftop garden planted by the residents themselves, which is expected to yield hundreds of pounds of great quality greens. …

“While eating discounted snacks might give homeless residents short-term financial benefits, the long-term health consequences are substantial. The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, who runs the gardening program, wanted to give homeless people access to food previously considered out-of-reach. Now, residents are responsible for 80 garden beds, producing kale, carrots, chard, and squash, among other vegetables.” More here.

Dockray doesn’t mention how gardening and donating to the shelter makes residents feel, but I am going to guess it builds their self image and confidence.

Photo: Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless

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Check out this story in the Boston Globe. It seems especially timely given the increasing numbers of people growing their own food and the concerns about many others who are struggling.

“Every summer, 40 million backyard farmers produce more food than they can use, while people in their communities go hungry. If only they could link up. Enter Gary Oppenheimer, 59, of West Milford, N.J. He was directing a community garden a couple of years ago when inspiration struck. In May 2009, AmpleHarvest.org hit the Internet, connecting food pantries and gardeners. In just 150 days, Rosie’s Place in Boston became the 1,000th pantry on the site, and the growth has continued. As of Labor Day, 4,188 pantries were listed, in all states. Oppenheimer says the nonprofit organization is actively seeking grant funding to sustain what has sprung up.” Read more here.

If you have extra produce from your garden, you can go to AmpleHarvest to find a food pantry near you.

Photographs: Sandra M. Kelly

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