AOn June 6 at 10:44 a.m., Julia was no longer welcome at the Interbay Tiny House Village. But in a twist later that day, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) cleared her to return to her shelter. Although she’s inside now, the hours between those two decisions were marked by outrage and fear.
That morning, Julia said she “wanted to be a bitch”, she “wanted to be a pussy”, she “wanted to be loud”, but she left quietly. She didn’t think anyone at LIHI – from on-site operations managers to executive director Sharon Lee – would listen to her anyway.
“I’m nobody’s female dog,” Julia said. “Especially not Sharon Lee’s.”
Julia, a black single mother who suffered domestic abuse while living away, spent a week in Interbay Village after the town swept her away from Kinnear Park.
According to an exit notice issued last week, village operators evicted her for a few threats of violence she allegedly made while living in the village of Whittier Heights more than a year ago. Julia denies the allegations, but they kicked her out of both villages anyway. She says a case manager is mad at her. Although LIHI allows residents to appeal decisions, no independent authority oversees the process. The lack of such authority makes her feel powerless to prove her case.
Moreover, she said that she had already been punished for these allegations. When the Village of Whittier Heights threw her off the streets in 2021, she ended up with an abusive ex-boyfriend and suffered a traumatic miscarriage. She said she lost so much blood during the miscarriage that it took her an hour to walk to a Shell petrol station which she could normally reach in less than 10 minutes.
Despite feeling helpless, Julia appealed LIHI’s decision to evict her for the second time, desperate to keep her place for just three more months when she would be eligible to cash in her housing voucher. With her attacker back in Seattle last weekend, the stakes had never been higher for her. If she could use the little shelter to avoid sleeping outside and bumping into him for now, she believed there was a real exit from homelessness for her in sight. Otherwise, she feared that the harsh realities of life on the outside would sway her from the path to permanent housing, especially with her abuser back in town.
“I hate [LIHI], but, at the same time, it’s the only place you can go to get out of homelessness. They did it that way,” she said.
Josh Castel, the director of nonprofit community engagement, declined to comment on the situation as it would breach confidentiality. He could only say, “Know that we follow our procedures closely, with fairness and safety being our top priorities. »
Sharon Lee pointed out that there are bound to be complaints with such a large program. When they occur, its staff takes care of them to ensure the safety of all residents.
Although LIHI reinstated Julia later that evening, her failure to clear up her alleged past behavior would have left her with no other small safe haven option in Seattle. LIHI has cornered the market.
LIHI The monopoly on tiny shelters in Seattle began in 2020. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were the only nonprofit offering a non-collective shelter model, so they scooped up all of the city’s contracts .
Villages started popping up left and right, and shelters became so popular that Charlene Mitchell, iacting director Compass Housing Alliance emergency services said homeless people are unwilling to stay in its muster shelters for the night now that the city is offering a private room behind a locked door. Since this monthLIHI operated 11 villages with a total of 466 homes in Seattle.
The newest village, Southend Village, is reminiscent of Interbay or other sites. Along an oval-shaped cobbled path, the village offers high-end port-a-potties, a covered gathering space, a dining tent, and the main event: 40 small cabanas.
At around 90 square feet each, the sheds aren’t much larger than what a homeowner might have in their backyard. But with a little extra charm, the sheds don’t read too much like garden sheds. The volunteers who built the sheds embellished them with curly railings and cheerful paint jobs that coordinate with the rest of the miniature neighborhood. LIHI interspersed pavilions, picnic tables, and planters throughout the shelter loop, and they topped it off with string lights overhead.
“It’s kind of like summer camp,” said Haley Hunt, a village operations manager at the new Southend Tiny Home Village.
Its comparison is verified. People walk in, agree to a whole list of rules, and do their chores. If residents have a problem, no tenant protection applies and no third-party authority can help them. Although small shelters are often considered the best temporary shelter option we have in Seattle’s Completely Broken System“summer camp” is a much kinder descriptor than the State Advisory Council on Homelessness, King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), or some former residents may use.
Julia compared the villages to a situation of domestic violence. The non-profit organization sets strict rules, imposes household chores and, according to it, practices group punishment. On top of that, she said she felt like no one would listen to her.
Julia is not alone in this feeling. Patricia, who lived in Interbay Village for two years, said she felt her case manager was sexist and determined to bring her down. When she tried to complain to LIHI (in about 100 emails), she felt rejected. She believes she has fallen victim to the stigma that homeless people are unreliable, overly paranoid or deceptive storytellers.
Julia and Patricia offered two ways to better handle their situations: get more attention on LIHI’s complaint system and get more vendors to break the nonprofit’s powerful hold on the industry.
Although people sometimes spend two years in a small shelter, LIHI handles all resident complaints internally, without being subject to the protections the city gives to tenants of permanent housing, according to Southend Village’s Hunt.
“It’s an improved shelter, so it’s definitely not landlord-tenant law, but there is a grievance process,” Castle said of the villages.
According to the association’s 2020 report Village management plan, LIHI expects residents to report any issues to village organizers. Then, the village organizers report their concerns to the special projects manager, who “will ensure that any issues are resolved in a timely manner.”
If the resident is unhappy with how the staff resolved the issue, or if the grievance involves site staff, they may appeal the decision in writing to the Tiny House Village Program Manager. Castle did not respond to a request for additional information about the grievance and appeal process.
For Julia, the appeal system worked, but it only worked after her appeal against the Ballard Village ruling failed in 2021, and only after she was evicted twice. She said residents would benefit from third-party reviews of their complaints. Otherwise, the association The monopolization of the tiny shelter market keeps residents quiet for fear of being banished from the best form of emergency shelter the city has to offer.
To further empower residents, Patricia, who wholeheartedly believes in LIHI’s shelter model but disagrees with its case management system, suggested that more providers should offer the tiny shelters. In this way, homeless people would not have to depend on a single entity for housing.
“Every small house grant, because of the experience, goes to LIHI, and that needs to change,” Patricia said.
VSCouncil member Andrew Lewis, perhaps the tiny shelter model’s biggest cheerleader, said he has publicly advocated for diversifying village operators to give people without homes more options because the shelter is not “one size fits all”. His efforts under Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration have come to nothing, but he hopes the Harrell administration will be friendlier.
Lewis said he has yet to hear any complaints about mishandled grievances or requests for oversight from LIHI. However, if someone came to his office asking an agency to audit the nonprofit, he wouldn’t object. “Everyone has the right to due process. Everyone has the right to be heard. We have to make sure that people don’t get kicked out of tiny houses for arbitrary reasons,” he said.
Of course, even if other entities have supported tiny shelters, or even if LIHI has allowed a third party to review complaints, housing experts warn against the City putting all its eggs in the basket of this model.
In his 2017 Recommendations, the State Advisory Council on Homelessness warned that these sheds were not suitable as permanent housing, which experts shouted from the rooftops. Others have made similar criticisms. Sasha Plotnikovaa writer for Failed Architecture, called tiny shelters in Los Angeles, which are built in Seattle, “a cage by any other name.” A KCRHA staff member called the Seattle Villages “slums.”
The staff member’s comment is not far from the authority’s stated position on shelters.
In a panel hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association last month, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones argued that “simple structures,” a far cry from what tiny homes look like on Instagram, are only desirable because they are the only option for people with a partner, or a pet, or who want a door and a lock.
Felicia Salcedo, the executive Director at WeAreIn, an advocacy group that works closely with the authority, added that despite the word “house” in the name “little house”, a person staying in one of these shelters is indeed still homeless. The only real way out is permanent housing.
“The mayor wants to get everyone off the streets, so it’s pretty outside,” she said. “But it’s ugly in these villages.”