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Gainesville High students aim to help homeless with 'tiny homes'
Students seeking nonprofits to help make idea a reality
Gainesville High’s Sammy Lara talks about plans to build a tiny home community for area homeless with like-minded classmates. Lara and other GHS students are hoping to get other groups involved to set the project in motion.

There are an estimated 200 or more homeless individuals in and around Gainesville, according to local officials and nonprofit agencies, a glaring total for a community of its size.

And according to the state Department of Community Affairs, Hall is just one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015.

They live under bridges, behind retail stores, even in storage units.

Now, three students at Gainesville High School are spearheading an initiative to change this by establishing a “tiny home village.”

It’s an idea that is gaining attention nationally as a way to address chronic homelessness.

For example, Seattle recently opened such a village.

The costs to construct are modest, homeless pay for utilities, and drugs and alcohol are prohibited at the site where 14 single-person units with a door and lock that resemble large storage sheds are located.

The village allows resource providers to better track these homeless individuals and provides them with the services they need to stay off the streets.

It’s based on a concept known as Housing First, which inverts the policy some shelters and programs have that require individuals to get sober, find a job or meet other requirements before receiving housing assistance.

Advocates say it works because housing provides the stability homeless people need to adequately address the problems that contribute to their homelessness.

For example, Utah has reduced its chronically homeless population of 2,000 by 91 percent in recent years thanks to the program model.

So what would it take to create a tiny home village in Gainesville?

Sammy Lara, Sergio Martinez and Cesar Marquez, all seniors, recently met with Gainesville Planning Manager Matt Tate to find out.

“There are many layers to the homeless issue,” Tate said, adding that it “might be possible if located at the proper location so as to be walkable to transit, health care and other services.”

For all three students, the motivation to see this project through stems from the many hours they have spent volunteering at local shelters and homeless camps.

These experiences taught Lara, who wants to be a social worker, that more needed to be done to serve those most in need, she said.

It left Marquez unable to stand the thought that good lives were going to waste, he said.

And Martinez said helping out fits his moral and career interest in improving people’s mental health.

The group has researched how tiny home villages operate in other communities and hopes to expand talks with interested governments, businesses and nonprofits in Hall.

Determining who could qualify to live in such a village, how they would be screened and how they would be monitored to ensure requirements are met are all major challenges.

And, of course, so is financing.

Changes to zoning laws would likely be necessary.

Fresno, Calif., for example, recently amended its land-use ordinances to allow for tiny homes on residential properties.

And a nonprofit would likely need to be contracted to manage and maintain the village.

But local agencies have identified homelessness as a problem that only seems to be deepening.

State officials are conducting a survey and count of military veterans living on the streets this week, for example, to address their growing numbers.

And that makes what the Gainesville High students are doing all the more unique.

They imagine a homeless community not lit by the light of a barrel fire, but by the shelter of one’s own home. Tiny can mean cozy, after all.

So the three seniors insist the project will go on even after they graduate this spring.

“I still want to be a part of it,” Martinez said, Lara and Marquez nodding in agreement.

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