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Advocates for homeless push micro-shelters as one solution

CHAMPAIGN -- Although they have a home until May 1, the future of Safe Haven's residents remains unsettled.

The self-governing group of homeless people, which started as a tent city and is now staying the winter at Restoration Urban Ministries, is still looking for property where it can build a more permanent community and win the government approval needed to do so.

The long-term goal is to construct a group of small, cabin-like shelters built around a central building that would house communal kitchen, bathroom and shower facilities.

The idea, based on a Portland, Ore., community called Dignity Village, faces continued opposition from the city of Champaign. Safe Haven organizers plan to present a proposal to Urbana in the near future.

"We're not limiting our focus to Champaign when we're looking for property," said Abby Harmon, 27, a University of Illinois graduate student and advocate for Safe Haven. "It could be the county; it could be Urbana, Savoy, Champaign. It doesn't matter, as long as transportation is accessible and people can get to the jobs that they have and get to the services that they need."


In the meantime, a group of UI architecture students, with the help of a local contractor, has built a prototype for the 8-foot-by-8-foot micro shelters they hope will someday house Safe Haven residents.

Erich Scheeler, who drew the original designs for the shelters, has been a contractor in the area for about 20 years. He learned about Safe Haven through an e-mail from a friend, he said.

"He had heard about it through the church he attends, and he sent me an e-mail with Abby's name, and I gave her a call because I understood they were looking for someone who had some experience in building very small dwellings," Scheeler said. "All my life I've been interested in very small - you know, how small can you go and still be viable?"

Scheeler said the inspiration for his design came from a small cabin his godfather, an architect, built on the end of a dock in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.

"The thing that always intrigued me was that you could pack so much into an 8-foot cube," he said. "There was a kitchenette, sleeping area, desk area, storage for clothes -  everything for a single person - in an 8-foot cube."

Scheeler's design was adapted by members of Freedom by Design, a student organization for architecture majors that uses their skills to solve community problems.

Sarah Hussaini, 20, is a UI senior and co-captain of the group.

Hussaini and co-captain Ryan Seitz got in touch with Harmon when they were looking for a project for the semester.

While Harmon originally asked the group to design a heater for the structures, the group quickly became involved in the process of designing the shelters themselves, Hussaini said.

Hussaini said she focused on the idea that two people would be sharing 64 square feet.

"It's not a lot of space, so something I pushed for a lot was personalization of space and having ownership of space and paying attention to things that could be contested," she said. 

For example, she said, placing a window near the top bunk bed might be the traditional choice, but, in a small shared space, it would mean the person on the bottom bunk would have to enter the other person's space to open the window.

Another important element Hussaini pushed for was including electricity in the shelters. 

The group also consulted Safe Haven residents.

While the students were originally planning to build closets in the structures, the residents said they would rather have shelves, which would store more gear and take up less room.

"They thought the closets wasted a lot of space," Hussaini said. "The reality of some of our design decisions, whether things were going to be used the way we would have intended them to [be] used, was a big filtering process because we had all these crazy ideas in the beginning."

Scheeler and about a dozen Freedom by Design members braved frigid temperatures Dec. 5 and 6 to construct a prototype shelter, which Safe Haven can use to sell the idea to reluctant public officials.

"It's supposed to be used as a sort of activation point, a kind of catalyst to get things rolling," she said. "It's a lot stronger than the words, and having something built gives the whole organization a stronger side to fight from."

* * * *

Convincing officials in the Champaign-Urbana area to allow construction of the shelters may be difficult.

Organizers didn't get far when they approached Champaign officials during the summer about amending zoning laws to accommodate a tent city or micro-shelter community.

Before any changes can be made to Champaign's laws, the city council would have to convene a study session, which requires the signature of five council members.

The group could not find one council member to sponsor their request. 

"The devil is in the details," council member Tom Bruno said. "If those small housing units meet our current life-safety codes, and if they want to put them in a place that is properly zoned for housing, then they can do that - anyone can do that; it's their right - without permission from the city."

If the city allowed Safe Haven to construct shelters that don't meet minimum housing standards, officials would have a hard time cracking down on slumlords or saying no to an employer who might want to set up a similar camp for migrant workers, he said.

"Those rules weren't put in place because we had people living by the country club who didn't have indoor plumbing," Bruno said. "Those minimal housing standards were imposed to protect the most vulnerable members of our society."

Safe Haven supporters said they believe the micro-shelters, which would be heated and insulated, are an improvement over sleeping unsheltered on the streets.

One of those supporters is the Rev. Tom Royer of St. Mary Catholic Church in Champaign.

After the city shut down Safe Haven's original encampment, the parish housed the community for 100 days before it moved to Restoration Urban Ministries.

"If they think that what is in place now is adequate to the problem, well, I think there's a lot of denial there," Royer said. "So what if there's a second tier and a third tier? The issue is there are people who have no place to sleep, and we're now getting into the cold weather, and I think that the city is not taking its role seriously."

The city's priority should be meeting the needs of its residents, he said.

"Here's a basic principle: Whenever you have a code or a law or a commandment on the one hand, and on the other hand you have a person that is in conflict you start with the person," Royer said. "You don't start with the code. What does this person need?"And there are times when you have to make exceptions, and if you're not willing to do that, then I think you should find another job."

By Dan Petrella / For the News-Gazette

Multimedia: Seeking 'Safe Haven' 

Artist's rendering of micro-shelters that Safe Haven residents hope to build as part of a permanent community: 


Computer rendering of a small shelter with bunkbeds and shelves

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