It can be easy to take for granted the comforts that most of us have in our homes. Indoor plumbing, running water, heat, a safe place to sleep, food—even the people fortunate enough to enjoy these amenities will periodically fall ill. Yet they can maintain their cleanliness, get adequate rest and most likely have access to reputable health care. Now, take all of that away. Suddenly, an alarming range of bodily and psychological impediments can arise.
In cities like Seattle and Los Angeles—where homelessness has reached staggering rates—tiny homes are being touted as a relief to the indigent and a remedy for implicit public health hazards.1 While there is a host of arguments against these developments, including whether they provide reasonable access to water and sanitation and the possibility of them becoming shantytowns, tiny homes, especially those built as part of a tiny house community, inarguably have had some positive effects on both their inhabitants and on the greater health of the communities in which they reside.2
DOWNSIZING, DISASTER AND DESPERATION—A QUICK HISTORY OF TINY HOUSES
Tiny houses are typically 100 to 400 square feet in size, a far cry from the 2,600-square foot size of the average American home.3 This concept was popularized in the 1990s by Jay Shafer,4 who founded the Small House Society in 2002, and since that time, they have seen an upsurge in popularity with people who want to downsize, usually for economic or environmental reasons. Now, the small living approach has evolved into a housing option for the homeless and otherwise disadvantaged.
Tiny houses were embraced and utilized as disaster relief options amidst the wreckage of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.5 By helping provide affordable, quickly available housing in a hurricane-ravaged region, tiny houses demonstrated their ability to have a massive impact on public health in a short period of time and with a relatively small capital investment.
The average cost of a tiny home is $23,000, though some can be manufactured for less than $12,000, and they are typically constructed of wood or recycled metals. Full communities of these affordable, sustainable and easily replicable domiciles have emerged in the last decade, some of which, such as Second Wind Cottages, are designed specifically to house homeless populations.6
HOMELESSNESS—A HOST OF HEALTH RISKS
It seems that providing someone who is displaced and on the streets with reliable, protective and warm shelter—complete with everyday amenities—can help alleviate the problems created and exacerbated by the absence of a permanent residence. Simply put, shelter is a major contributor to overall health and can alleviate many of the inherent health problems endured by those living outside.
Beyond the obvious stresses of being homeless, there are broader and more severe health issues plaguing the indigent. Without a permanent residence, individuals are more likely to be exposed to various diseases and health hazards, including:
- Mental illness
- Poor nutrition and hygiene
- High blood pressure
- Alcoholism and addiction
The National Center for Biotechnology Information has worked with the Social and Demographic Research Institute to collect and compare health data and determine just how prevalent the correlation between homelessness and chronic illness might be. They found that mental illness was identified as perhaps the most common ailment befalling the homeless.8
Unfortunately, once ill, homeless individuals cannot, in most cases, easily access treatment. Moreover, their abject living conditions only compound their symptoms, further complicating the issue and heightening their state of infirmity. Without insurance or the luxury of healthcare options, homeless people instead visit emergency rooms at an average of five times per year and typically spend three nights per visit. Those visits cost up to $18,500 per year.9 Cumulatively, such costs are covered by taxpayer dollars and can be a drain on the economy.
THE POWER OF HOUSING
Tiny houses, if taken seriously, could have a broad impact on overall public health and the economy. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has found that implementing housing programs to help the homeless can slash public services costs—medical care, temporary shelter and incarcerations—by an estimated $15,773 a year.10
Once consistently indoors and protected from some of the harsh conditions inherent to poverty, an indigent person’s health can be better maintained or proactively protected. Beyond that, a tiny house village can offer a profound sense of community for those otherwise suffering from isolation.
In some such developments, like Quixote Village in Olympia, WA, supportive communities have blossomed that are self-governed, free of drugs and alcohol and employ members with weekly service hours.11 Such communal attributes of the tiny house village can foster a sense of purpose for individuals who have dealt with unemployment and social ostracization.
BUILDING FROM HERE
Tackling the micro- and macro-impacts of homelessness as a public health issue calls for ongoing research and passionate efforts. To learn more about opportunities to understand, support and improve public health issues like alleviating homelessness, consider pursuing a Master of Public Health.
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from crosscut.com/2017/10/homelessness-seattles-public-health-crisis-city-budget/
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/23/tiny-houses-solution-homelessness-seattle
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from thetinylife.com/what-is-the-tiny-house-movement/
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from www.fourlightshouses.com/pages/about-jay-shafer
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from npr.org/2006/05/15/5366823/tiny-houses-find-a-friend-on-the-gulf-coast
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from secondwindcottages.org/
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2014/07/31/07/56/homelessness-as-a-public-health-problem
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK218236/
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from greendoors.org/facts/cost.php
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from endhomelessness.org/
- Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from quixotevillage.com/history/