Can Tiny Houses Curb AIDS Among Homeless Youths?

The trend that started as a way for people to live cheaply off the grid has now become a proposed solution to homelessness.
(Photo: Blue Cutler/Getty Images)
Feb 24, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.
After her aunt and primary guardian died, a 17-year-old with HIV in Chicago suddenly found herself homeless, social worker Matt Richards recalls. She tried to maintain her job and crash at friends’ houses all while trying to manage her grief. Eventually, she started missing medical appointments, her health started to deteriorate, and her HIV worsened drastically.
Luckily, she was hospitalized in time and survived.
“There are many instances in which circumstances exactly like these lead to a patient’s death,” Richards tells TakePart. “Fortunately, we were later able to find permanent housing for her, and not surprisingly, her capacity to adhere to an HIV care process has dramatically improved.”
Though homeless youths face a potentially deadly disease, housing is being recognized as key to their survival.
“Being homeless introduces a lot of uncertainty and instability into people’s lives. It is stressful and traumatizing,” Richards says. He works as a director for the University of Chicago’s pediatric and adolescent HIV program and says cases like this teen’s aren’t unusual. “We are currently seeing the greatest increases in HIV incidence among young people, in particular among African American LGBT youth, where there are also significant racial disparities associated with unemployment and poverty.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, housing status is a stronger predictor of HIV health outcomes than issues related to gender, race, age, drug and alcohol use, or mental health. People with worsening housing situations are four times more likely to increase their HIV risk by participating in sex exchange. Also, people experiencing homelessness are 16 times more likely to acquire HIV than the general population.

In April, organizers of Chicago’s first Tiny Home Summit hope to introduce and explore a new kind a housing solution for teenagers like Richards’ patient, one that could provide the dignity and security needed to survive the challenges of homelessness.

“Tiny homes were appealing because they provided more privacy and dignity and are low-cost and quick to build,” said Tracy Baim, editor of Windy City Times, Chicago’s only LGBT newspaper and a sponsor of the summit.
Back in 2014, Baim explains, a similar summit on youth homeless revealed that homeless and struggling youths ages 18 to 24, and especially African American and LGBT homeless youths struggling with HIV, were particularly vulnerable to issues of housing instability. Participants were attracted to the idea of tiny-home communities as an alternative to shelters.
“From the youth perspective, based on our findings,” says Baim, “it is the independent housing that provides a sense of dignity and a chance to learn how to live independently but still with support services.”
While an array of zoning and financing hurdles, along with climate considerations, must be addressed, the idea of tiny-home communities has been gaining ground in recent years. Such places have already popped up in Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Fresno, California; Olympia, Washington; upstate New York; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, Texas. Seattle is about to open its first tiny-home village on land owned by a local church. A trend that started out years ago as a way for people to live cheaply off the grid has now become a proposed solution to homelessness.
“We need many more affordable solutions for housing at all levels, not just for the currently homeless, but for those who could become homeless without more affordable solutions,” says Baim. “We have vast empty land in Chicago, and this is just one way we can address this crisis. Tiny homes—those under 600 square feet but in some cases under 300 square feet—can provide lower-cost, faster solutions to the housing crisis.”
Seattle’s planned tiny homes, for instance, will measure 8 feet by 12 feet; have insulation, heat, and electricity; and cost just $2,200 to build. A separate building in the village provides communal restrooms and hot showers. Residents will pay just $90 a month to live in them.
Baim says a tiny homes design contest has already been launched by the American Institute of Architects Chicago, with a prototype of the winning entry to be built for the spring summit at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
The hope, says Baim, is to create a number of tiny-home communities for homeless youth in the Chicago area over the next two to three years.
Richards says he looks forward to learning more about tiny-home communities at the summit, and that what he’s seen so far looks promising.
“Imagine what it would be like to try and meet all of your obligations in employment, health, and family if you didn’t know where you were going to sleep every night,” he says. “We take secure housing for granted a lot of the time, but it is essential that we recognize the stabilizing force that it plays in people’s lives and the prospects for instability that it creates for those who don’t have it.”
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated where a tiny house prototype will be on display during the spring summit. It will be at the University of Illinois, Chicago.