There's a housing crisis in many cities, including Coeur d’Alene, with emergency housing, and there is an increasing population of citizens in dire need of safe housing while they rebuild their lives. For those in our city, Gar Mickelson is their voice.
“There are not a lot of options for homeless individuals,” Mickelson, the director of Kaleidoscope Community Services, said in a recent interview.
Mickelson is spearheading the Pathfinder Initiative, a task force comprised of community members, to provide temporary housing in the form of a tiny-house village. Kaleidoscope Community Services is a non-profit he founded to address the needs of homeless individuals in the city. It provides a place where they can receive services and a meal. With the formation of the Pathfinder Initiative, Mickelson is taking his advocacy a step further to address the lack temporary housing in Coeur d’Alene.
“I wanted to bring together a group of people who’ve served the homeless, indigent and underserved,” he said. “We’re tired of just talking.”
There’s a huge stigma behind the term “homelessness.” Many of us think of an individual who’s made certain poor decisions. The reality is that many families, particularly single mothers with young children, are the ones struggling for housing for various reasons, be it an abusive relationship, problems with substance abuse or poverty.
Homelessness is increasing in our state. State studies show an increase from 2015 to 2016, which rose to 2,247 individuals. Of those, 307 were families totaling 979 individuals. Of the adult population, 267 of them were veterans.
In Coeur d’Alene, exact numbers are difficult to determine since some individuals don’t want to be counted. Others are the “invisible homeless,” living temporarily in various homes of friends and relatives. Mickelson estimates that there are between 100 and 150 people “sleeping rough” among the elements, and many more are in unstable homes.
“In School District 271 for 2015-16, there were 406 students considered homeless. Of those, half were in grades K through six,” Mickelson said. “In our community, we don’t have places to stabilize people to help them move forward in life.”
In Coeur d’Alene, emergency housing is only provided by St. Vincent’s de Paul, Michelson explained, and they only have 24 beds total (12 for men, 12 for women). There are some warming centers, but because services are based on the weather, many individuals are left sleeping rough. Additionally, there are no places to camp legally, and sleeping in one’s car is not allowed. The help is simply not there.
The Pathfinder Initiative Tiny House Village: A viable pilot program
Mickelson is following a similar program started in Seattle called the Low Cost Housing Institute, which has built several tiny home villages with the support of the city.
“In Seattle … it’s critical there. There are a lot of rogue encampments that are not safe and are eyesores. It’s a state of emergency there,” he said.
Tiny homes have gained popularity as a simple and sustainable lifestyle. In Seattle, they have proven to be an affordable way to create housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. The villages are maintained by volunteers and faith-based groups.
Temporary housing is the first step, then assessing their needs and helping them re-enter the community. The Pathfinder Initiative in Coeur d’Alene proposes building 22 cabins that are 8 feet by 12 feet on a half-acre with a community bathroom, kitchen and garden. Individuals and families would be referred from various community organizations, such as Family Promise and schools. They would live in the village until they could afford their own home. Residents would receive services but also serve in the village and community at large. A big part of stabilizing a person is by restoring their self-worth.
“We need to have things that people can do to establish their dignity and get out of the hopelessness and depression [of their situation],” Mickelson said.
Without appropriate housing and services, many homeless individuals seek medical care in emergency rooms or receive motel vouchers from churches. Local churches bear the brunt of housing services, offering up $50,000 per year.
“It’s an expensive solution because there’s no relationship, stability or assessment as to what their needs are to take steps for individuals to move forward,” he said.
Currently, Mickelson said he’s received support from the city but that there is much to resolve in terms of the legalities and permits necessary because of the uniqueness of the program.
A model tiny home
The Pathfinder Initiative’s tiny-home model was built by students studying Carpentry and Construction Technology at North Idaho College. It was built last summer over just three days. Matt Piekarski, Carpentry and Construction Technology instructor for NIC, led the project. He got involved after he was approached by the mother of one of his students about it.
“It’s been a great community effort from my standpoint and for NIC teaching career skills,” Piekarski said. “Part of NIC’s mission is community engagement, and this gave students skills in layout and framing on a small scale.”
The NIC carpentry program is frequently approached to do community projects. The project was built from materials donated or purchased at a discount by the Pathfinder Initiative and took 10 students three days to build last August.
“I definitely would like to be involved in building more for Gar,” he said.
One of the first steps the community can take in creating solutions for homelessness is to become educated on the subject. This fall, Mickelson will take the tiny house model on tour in the area as part of an awareness campaign. For more information, visit KaleidoscopeCS.org
“This is a great opportunity to make a difference,” Mickelson said.