By Tori Bedford, WGBH
Plans for a community of tiny homes for people experiencing chronic homelessness in Worcester have been announced, with a small village slated to open in 2023.
The village, to be located at 264 Stafford St., will have 21 tiny homes that contain a bedroom, bathroom and combination kitchen and living room, contained within about 480 square feet. As of 2019, 84 people in Worcester were chronically homeless, according to data reported to Central Mass Housing.
“It's expanding the options for people,” said Amy Arrell, a service director at Open Sky Community Services, “because different things work for different people, depending on their trauma history, their need for privacy, their different experiences when they've been out on the streets.”
Arrell says Worcester’s homelessness crisis has heightened during the coronavirus pandemic: at the height of the crisis in April of last year, nearly half of the population at a Worcester adult emergency homeless shelter tested positive for COVID-19.
Open Sky is working in partnership with the Worcester East Side Community Development Corporation and a group of local real estate developers, organizations and agencies to offer permanent housing for people who have struggled with chronic homelessness, mental health challenges and substance use.
Applicants for residency will be processed through a coordinated entry process, led by the city, Open Sky and the Department of Mental Health, to select candidates who don’t thrive in a group setting or temporary housing.
“We offer a type of living for folks who are chronically homeless that really is unique,” Arrell said. “It's designed to be a supportive and recovery-based community.”
The village will include on-site housing specialists to help transition tenants into the neighborhood, as well as individualized and group mental health and substance use treatment. Staff will live in a central building that also serves as a community center, offering monthly social activities like barbecues and picnics. Residents will additionally have access to both individual and community gardens.
Subsidies will be available to cover the cost of rent based on a percentage of income, and resources for job placement will be made available to residents on-site.
“For a lot of people, as soon as they’re ready to work, they may choose to move into something bigger, to start a family or reunite with family, to move in with other people and would need more space,” Arrell said. “In permanent supportive housing programs, people usually don’t live there forever, they live there for as long as they need to. But there is a sense of security as you’re recovering to know that if you do need that, it’s a permanent option for you.”
The roughly $5 million project is slated to break ground next spring or summer and open to residents in 2023. Some funding has already been secured through UMass Memorial Health’s anchor mission program, which has connected Worcester East Side CDC and Civico, a real estate development firm that has designed the model based on similar projects across the Pacific Northwest.
“We abide by some of the principles referred to as ‘trauma-informed design,’” Taylor Bearden, a partner at Civico, said. “The idea is that you’re actually designing for the population and the experiences that these people who may have suffered from chronic homelessness have had in their life. You’re not creating dark corners. You’re making sure that, from the bedroom, you have a clear line of sight to the front door. Certain things that may be triggers for trauma are sort of addressed in the architecture of the spaces themselves.”
Bearden says safety and community are huge factors in designing a space that can serve as both a recovery center and a liveable space for people who have experienced trauma.
“The goal is to create a really permanent community where the people who live there develop relationships,” Bearden said, “and have a place to call home for a really long time.”