Jamiah Rawls, a transgender woman who has dealt with frequent homelessness since her transition, is helping build a new village for people like her. Image: David Cumming

Inside Denver's First 'Tiny Village' for the Homeless

Beloved Community Village could transform services for transgender Americans without homes.

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Jul 27 2017, 2:06pm

Jamiah Rawls, a transgender woman who has dealt with frequent homelessness since her transition, is helping build a new village for people like her. Image: David Cumming

On this night in River North, Jamiah Rawls is homeless. It's hushed in this part of Denver. Trains snake north carrying oil pipelines. Rawls is on guard duty as a future resident of Beloved Community Village, the city's first ever tiny home village created to provide private houses for 22 homeless people.

On other nights, Rawls may be in another district, enduring the cold in search of a place to eat and space to rest. For 49-year-old Rawls, who is part of the transgender population vulnerable to divisive conditions in homeless shelters, this is a good night.

Beloved Community Village is a radical experimental village funded by community partners, private donors, and foundations like Denver Homeless Outloud, Urban Land Conservancy, and Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. It is meant to be the latest attempt at equitable solutions in low-income housing. And it involves tiny houses.

The 11 units cost about $130,000 total, far cheaper than most homeless shelters. Image: David Cumming

By the spring of 2018, Denver Homeless Outloud hopes to raise enough funds and grassroots support to build two more villages, and eventually spawn enough communities to house 300 homeless people in the city, home to some 693,000 people.

"We think that's not an unrealistic goal, but it's contingent on changes to the code, funders, or investors catching the vision and acquiring land," said Nathan Hunt, an organizer of the Village and Program Director of Economic Justice for Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.

The village is currently running a 180-day pilot stage aimed at individuals and couples to cultivate a self-governed community in these 11 homes. The residents will use a customized yurt—called a CircHouse—for meals and gatherings. There is also a communal shower house, separate portable toilets, and a few garden plots on the property.

Community volunteers and contracted workers have come together to build Beloved Village with support from GoFundMe campaign, which raised $27,000. Another $35,000 was raised by outside individuals and businesses. Image: David Cumming

The village could be especially necessary for the one in five transgender people experiencing homelessness in the US. And Rawls, who was raised in Albany, New York, knows this first hand.

Restrooms, showers, beds, and privacy are hard to come by in typical homeless shelters, according to the Center for American Progress. And those services are even less accessible for transgender people: A National Center for Transgender Equality survey published last year found that 26 percent of transgender homeless people avoided shelters due to mistreatment. Seventy percent said they were mistreated, harassed, sexually or physically assaulted in shelters, or kicked out due to being transgender.

As a child, Rawls tried to fit into the standard male construct. "There was some verbal abuse about how I was as a kid," Rawls told me. "The way I used to stand. The way I used to express myself. 'Why you standing like a girl?' My brother used to say to me a lot."

Rawls organizes volunteer contractors and construction teams at the village. "Survival should be a right," she said. "It's not just Denver, it's a nationwide crisis." Image: David Cumming

By 1988, Rawls was married with children and owned a construction business in Albany, New York. "That was when I was another person. That was in another life," she said. "At one point [my children] felt like I would, you know, just transition back to daddy. I knew I shouldn't have married. But I felt like I had to get married to prove to myself and others that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."

Over time, the financial burden of supporting her family didn't allow Rawls to focus on her physical transition with hormones. Eventually, Rawls bought a bus ticket to Colorado to begin her physical transition and a new life. It hasn't been easy. Rawls and her friends find it nearly impossible to find a reliable and safe space to sleep each night due to curfews and unstable conditions at shelters.

"You're at risk for a number of things," said Rawls, who will often ride the train, sometimes for hours, across town if a shelter is full or she is being harassed. "The violence, the assaults, the insults. And that turns into mental anguish and discouragement over time. People do get into conflict. Anything can happen. Anything can jump off."

Brandon Peterson (center) works with community organizers and volunteers. "The city has $150 million going into this affordable housing fund for 10 years to build or preserve six thousand units," he said. "And we're building 11 units with pretty much $100,000." Image: David Cumming

The NCTE survey found that 40 percent of transgender respondents had attempted suicide in their life. "They're fed up with living and they deal with so much," Rawls added.

For Rawls and people like her, Beloved Community Village could mean a new kind of freedom. And the people behind the project are hoping for just that.

Just over the village's fence line, restaurants, apartment buildings, and CrossFit gyms crop up like corn stalks. As Denver becomes increasingly gentrified, with an average cost of rent rising at one of the fastest paces in the nation, the disparity between people of new wealth and those of challenging socioeconomic status is glaring.

"There's an aesthetic piece to the village," Peterson said. "Once [residents walk 10 feet from the village you wouldn't know they are homeless because all their stuff is sitting back in their tiny home. That takes away some of the stigma around homelessness." Image: David Cumming

For three consecutive years, homeless activists, local residents, and Colorado lawmakers hoped to adopt a "Homeless Bill of Rights" to address this gap. Among basic rights for homeless people, the proposed bill would strip the ban on urban camping instituted in 2012 by the Denver City Council. Activists in Denver had to figure out a solution to the ban.

Their answer was the village. "Getting that stability and then the autonomy just helps you re-engage with the community that's isolated and marginalized a lot of folks for a long time," said Brandon Peterson, development director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.

Only a few states—Oregon and Washington are good examples—have figured out how to chip away at a complex affordable housing crisis in America using grassroots, tiny home villages like the Beloved Community Village being piloted in Denver. In cities like Portland, it costs a resident $4 per night to sleep at Dignity Village, a tiny home village established in 2000.

"Besides the wood and the houses, it's about people being empowered to know that they're a part of something great," Rawls said. "Regardless of who they are, you need to just let people shine." Image: David Cumming

Peterson told me the creators of the village have some convincing to do with neighbors and city officials. Currently, the City of Denver won't allow the creation of two villages at a time. Even so, there is already community buy-in. And while there was no direct funding from the city of Denver toward construction costs, Beloved received the remaining $70,000 from private philanthropic foundations like the Gates Family Foundation and the Barton Institute.

For Rawls, who is simply looking for a safe place to sleep, this is not just a shelter or a last resort.

"Homelessness shouldn't be uncomfortable," Rawls said. "Homelessness should be comfortable. So that you feel confident enough that you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. And the system needs to give them some boots so they can pull themselves up."

Sarah Megyesy contributed to this story.

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