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From disaster on the street to tiny homes

June 5, 2017

Denver, Colorado — The Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Colorado Unit is responding to a local disaster that doesn’t easily fall into the criteria of a natural disaster, events MDS volunteers are well-known for addressing.

Instead, what stands before them is a massive man-made disaster, a human disaster of nearly 10,000 homeless people seeking safe and secure shelter on any given night in the city of Denver.

This past January at the Colorado Unit annual planning meeting volunteers heard from a small group of local people who four years ago started “to practice the discipline of hope for the homeless,” Paul Johnson, MDS Colorado Unit board member said.

“They started building tiny homes with materials recycled and repurposed. They tried out the idea of making sustainable, small footprint, cost efficient homes,” Johnson said.

“It is the most, cheap, dignified, responsible and ecological option that we have seen on the table in a long time,” said Terese Howard of the Denver Homeless Out Loud in describing how tiny homes will deal with some of the homeless challenges in the city.

IMG_1713Similar to other cities such as Austin, Texas; Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, the Denver homeless advocacy groups secured the necessary approvals to build around a dozen tiny homes for homeless people. They would be built in an area of warehouses called the RiNo Art District.

During their January meeting the Colorado Unit volunteers were considering three disaster situations they could respond to in 2017 and decided they would put their energy into assisting with the construction of eleven of the tiny homes.

They agreed to work with the Blessed Community Mennonite Church, the Interfaith Alliance, Denver Homeless Out Loud and other groups in Denver to make a difference in the lives of homeless people.

In April, the partnership expanded when Everence Stewardship Solutions offered to work with Beloved Community Mennonite Church and MDS. An Everence Chapter grant was given to the partnership.

A Go Fund Me site was set up by the local homeless groups to raise funds for building the homes. An architect volunteered time and a general contractor took the eleven house plans to the city building department for approval, volunteering three full-time staff to the effort. As of June 1, the Go Fund Me site, Beloved Community Village, had collected $25,000 toward its goal of $30,000.

May 20 was the first day of 10 days of MDS builds in the community. More than 100 people volunteered on the first day, including participation from four Mennonite churches.

The Colorado Unit oversaw the volunteers, “a daunting task,” said volunteer Rhoda Friesen.

“This is a unique project, in that the homes are built on foundations which are transportable and will be moved to another location in 6 months or so,” Friesen said.

The houses themselves have power and heat, but no water, according to Friesen. A portable shower and commode yurt (a circular tent) will be constructed, as well as a yurt with kitchen facilities. An advisory board made up of the homeless living in the homes has been formed for maintenance of the site.

“God is still at work in this world,” Johnson said. “If you have any doubts-follow Jesus, go to the margins of society. Go where the homeless sleep, and ask them what their greatest dream is … it’s a humble one. “A simple roof to keep the rain out and the snow off me,” they will say.”

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