‘I gave a little of my backyard and it opened a much bigger world’

I love this sign – “YES, in my backyard”. And this is a truly wonderful story, of an architect and his daughter who love their city so much that they want to show it is a city that cares enough to house all its residents, and to welcome them as neighbours.

Facing Homelessness, a non profit based in Seattle, Washington, builds tiny homes in a backyard to house a person who’s been homeless. And in doing so, the Block Project is not just building houses – it’s building community among neighbours, the housed and formerly unhoused alike. (See some of them here.)

“We will never end homelessness through housing alone,” the organization says. “A new approach is needed, one that acknowledges that relationships are the building blocks for healing our communities and that we can no longer see those who are homeless as ‘other’.”

“Our vision is to help end homelessness by building a BLOCK Home and thriving community on every residential block in Seattle. The model will be accessible nationwide and create a foundation of compassion and empathy for future generations.”

The Block Project believes firmly in fostering social inclusion, in building sustainably, in creating intentional networks of support for formerly homeless people, focusing on affordability, and by offering dignified housing. “BLOCK Residents will often live in the most advanced house on their block, inviting them to educate their neighbors about sustainable living.”

It began four years ago, when Kim and Dan offered their backyard for a tiny home to house Bobby, a 74-year-old man who had been homeless for a decade. He still lives there, and they have become so close he will probably stay for the rest of his life.

The Block Project and the non profit were the brainchild of architect Rex Hohlbein, who began tackling homelessness after befriending an unhoused artist in front of his architecture studio. He began to share photos of the people he met on the bench near his office, and it unleashed a stream of kindness, he says. (You really need to watch him speak at the TEDx event – it’s incredibly moving.) He saw how much people wanted to help – but they didn’t know how.

“It’s way too complicated to just have a government program,” he says. “It’s really a whole shift in how a community acts and moves forward addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.”

He launched Facing Homelessness in 2013, and then, with his daughter, architect Jenn LaFreniere, he developed the backyard idea. Land is expensive in cities, construction projects can take a long time, so why not ask local residents to share their backyards directly, he thought. City zoning laws allow “accessory dwelling units,” or backyard houses. 

The Block Project.

And these are not just tiny houses. They are often the most advanced housing on the block, designed according to the sustainability standards of the Living Building Challenge, with features like solar power and rainwater capture and purification. Hohlbein wanted to give the new residents the chance to share something with their neighbors, helping teach others how their houses might be retrofitted.

Holhlbein believes that this idea, which once might have sounded radical, will become more mainstream. “Airbnb, the idea of a complete stranger staying in your house while you’re sleeping—that’s crazy,” he say. “I’m old enough to know the time before Airbnb, and that thought was just ludicrous. And now nobody thinks about it. So we believe that the same kind of cultural shift will happen with our backyards.” (He and his daughter are no longer leading the project, though they are still involved.)

When homeowners apply, Facing Homelessness checks the yard and interviews them. Agencies refer unhoused people who would be a good fit, and the nonprofit serves as a matchmaker and meets with neighbors to allay fears and address concerns. They want to make sure everyone on the block is comfortable with the idea.

At first, the tiny homes were built by volunteers in the backyards. But last year, they developed a new system so panels could be built in a workshop and then put together on-site within days to form walls, the roof, cabinets, and the rest of the basic structure. Facing Homelessness works with local plumbers and electricians to set up utilities, and provides basic furnishings. They fundraise with the community to provide welcome home kits that provide other essential items like curtains, bedding, pots and pans, and cleaning supplies..

“It’s important to note that we see this as long-term housing,” Jennifer Tee, deputy director of Facing Homelessness, told Fast Company. “We understand that a lot of people who are moving into these homes are experiencing some form of trauma, be it from homelessness or from previous experiences. We really want this to be a stable environment, so somebody isn’t thinking, ‘Oh, no, I have to move in a year,’ or ‘I have to move in two years.’”

The program has grown solely through word of mouth so far. While they hope eventually to have a tiny house on every block, they are ‘scaling at the pace of community’, Tee says. “We want to make sure that every time you place a resident, we have all the capacity we need to support that resident.”

Sources:

These homeowners volunteer their backyards for tiny housing for homeless neighbors. Fast Company, Oct. 18, 2021

The Block Project website.

Facing Homelessness. Rex Hohlbein. TEDx Rainier talk. Dec. 22, 2014

Ending Homelessness. Rex Hohlbein and Jenn LaFreniere. TEDx Seattle, Mar. 22, 2018.