Big Dreams for Tiny Houses
new nonprofit builds little homes for the homeless
On a hot and muggy Friday night and Saturday in June, 15 or so volunteers – who ranged in age from 10 to 70-something and came from all walks of life and faiths – gathered with hammers, saws, and paintbrushes in a livestock pavilion at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls.
Their mission: to complete two homes – one for a couple and one for a family of four – in a new roving development called Hope Village, which will provide short- and longer-term housing alternatives and services to people experiencing homelessness in Chippewa County.
“No one is immune. You never know when it might happen to you.” – Lynette Hupfer, Hope Village volunteer, on homelessness
How? Tiny houses. The one for the couple is a recently donated former ice fishing house that volunteers are revamping. When finished, it will measure 96 square feet and will sit on an 8-by-12 foot trailer. The one for a family of four will include a small covered porch, will measure 8-by-12 feet, and will sit on a 17.5-foot-long trailer.
This isn’t FYI Network’s Tiny House Nation, a TV series which features two renovation experts who travel across America to “celebrate” the minimalist movement of tiny homes no larger than 500 square feet, which range from pricey to budget-friendly.
Nor is it the work of actor and activist Richard Gere, who pretended to be homeless on the streets of New York for his latest film, Time Out of Mind, to call attention to the plight of the more than 1 million homeless people in the United States. The film debuted in Italy in June where refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East have landed and now live in camps.
Hope Village is your neighbors helping neighbors they may never meet who are living in cars, underneath bridges, or in the shadows of alleys or woods. They are walking streets with all of their belongings in knapsacks, carts, or plastic bags. Hope Village’s slogan is: “Helping Hands Building Homes for the Unsheltered.”
These volunteers, sweating when they could have been attending the Leinie Lodge Family Reunion – which was just blocks away and whose music filled the air – simply want to fulfill the vision of Hope Village, which is “to ensure everyone living in Chippewa County has a safe and secure place to call home.”
The first home for a single person – 12 feet by 8 feet – was completed about a month ago and is located on the grounds of the Landmark Christian Church in Lake Hallie. Built by more than 75 volunteers who put in hundreds of hours, this home was featured in local media, which is how several of the volunteers heard about the effort. Other volunteers are members of 17 churches which make up the Chippewa Falls Mission Coalition. This coalition was formed about six years and began focusing on homelessness in Chippewa County when the local homeless shelter and kitchen closed due to lack of funds in 2014. Still others heard about the cause via word of mouth or from the group’s Facebook page or website.
Spearheading this effort is Mike Cohoon, outreach pastor for the nondenominational Landmark Christian Church, and Larry Larson, a retired teacher from Cornell, who Cohoon jokingly calls the “chief elf.” Larson ensures the supplies get to the livestock pavilion in time for volunteer efforts, and he adds that he, Mike, and a handful of other middle-aged volunteers – some working and some retired – are part of a loosely knit road bike club called the “Old Geezers.”
Cohoon is a Chippewa Falls native who left after high school for college and career and returned later to raise his family. A graduate of “Chi-Hi” – as the local public high school is called – Cohoon happened to run into a former classmate, not at the grocery store or in a restaurant, but living underneath a bridge in Chippewa Falls. His friend is a Marine veteran plagued with substance abuse issues. Cohoon was called – on a very personal level – to do something about homelessness here.
Between pounding nails for a framed wall, volunteer Curt Clausing said: “I have a heart for the homeless; people should not be homeless or lack shelter in our nation.” Clausing is a middle-aged plumbing and mechanical engineer for APEX Engineering in Eau Claire. He brought his 20-something son, who helped two other volunteers – builders who heard about the effort on TV – noisily saw one of the walls to make room for the hub of the wheel. Each home is categorized as a homemade camper to meet zoning laws.
The Brenner family – Dave and Katie and their 10-year-old daughter, Emilee – who are Seventh-day Adventists from Altoona, painted bead board in a neutral cream with a group of volunteers at the other end of the barn. “Helping any way we can is a great way to spend our Sabbath,” said Dave. And Emilee, paintbrush in hand, added: “I’m glad that I can do something here to help.”
Lynette Hupfer, a kind-looking, middle-aged woman whose hair is pulled back in a bun, looked up from painting, and shared: “Homelessness can affect anybody at any time. No one is immune. You never know when it might happen to you.” She went on to share that her husband was a tradesman who worked for an organization in the area and got laid off during a downturn. For 13 years, they lived in fear of losing their home.
Amidst the sound of pounding nails and whirring saws are the smiles on the faces of volunteers who know they are doing something valuable for people they might never meet in person.
“Our first house took about four to five months to complete,” Cohoon said. “We started in January and finished in May. With the additional volunteer help now, these two homes are coming together much faster.”
Hope Village’s goal is to eventually complete 10 to 12 tiny homes (ideally by year’s end). Initially, churches will host one or two tiny homes at a church site. In a year or two, the group wants to acquire property where all of the homes can be placed to truly form a village. In fact, the volunteer group is looking for someone to donate land for Hope Village. The Village would have a central building with a community room, bathrooms, showers, kitchens, and perhaps even a workshop or retail space where people living in the village could get training and/or make a living.
Volunteer opportunities are many and are listed on the nonprofit group’s website. In addition to everything involved with construction, the group is also looking for help with graphic design, fundraising, case management, legal advice, property search, and interior design. The group uses Volunteer Spot to post when and where volunteers can come to help make the houses.