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Olympia faith communities, city partner to build tiny houses

United Churches of Olympia is partnering with other faith communities to address homelessness, including through tiny houses, said Tammy Stampfli, pastor.

At the fall workshop, participants built a Conestoga house. Photo courtesy of Peter Cook

The January 2018 Point in Time Count found 825 people in Olympia experiencing homelessness, up to 300 tents set up downtown and people camping in wooded areas near the city.

Because the 9th Circuit Court had recently decided on a Boise case that it is “cruel and unusual treatment” for a city to sweep away homeless encampments, unless the city provides somewhere the people can go, Olympia cannot close the camps, Tammy said.

In May, the mayor gathered faith communities.  The meeting made it evident that faith communities did not know what they or the city could do, said Peter Cook, a deacon at the United Churches.

“Our church recently held a summit with Center Progressive Renewal and decided to work on homelessness, sanctuary and immigration, and eliminating racism,” said Peter, chair of the church’s Community Connections Committee, which is to implement the goals. “We chose to begin with focusing on tiny houses.”

The United Churches partnered with Evergreen Christian Center to host a workshop on tiny houses on Oct. 28. About 130 people from about 15 faith communities came.

They heard success stories from Eugene, Ore., where faith communities and nonprofits work together on tiny houses, and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) of Seattle.

Some Seattle-area churches have built $1,300 Conastoga-style houses in three hours with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and have tiny house villages in their parking lots.

Several attendees were inspired to urge their congregations to build tiny houses on their property, said Peter, who is organizing follow-up meetings to work with the City to introduce more tiny houses.

The workshop reminded faith communities that they need to engage with homeless people and create relationships.

The City of Olympia has started a pilot program to partner with faith communities:

• A faith community may build one to six houses on its property with support from a city contractor for screening, portable toilets, trash removal and links to social services.

• A medium-sized tiny house village of 10 to 20 houses with common facilities for water, toilets, laundry and cooking will be managed by a group of faith communities with support from a city contractor.

• Faith communities may make contributions to a tiny house village on city property with city-contracted management

He said that tiny houses are only part of the solution, as transitional housing to more permanent housing. He said faith communities should also support existing encampments and shelters, and recognize that people on the street “have skills we can use.”

Keith Stahley, director of Olympia’s community planning and development department, was skeptical when Peter proposed the workshop, but after the workshop, he said the event exceeded his expectations.  The workshop was an impetus for the city and faith communities.

“The city and faith communities are now developing a coordinated entry system for placing people in tiny homes.  There are benchmarks for people to meet and they can stay up to a year while signing up for services and looking for jobs,” she said.

The churches will provide land for the tiny home dwellers and they may use the churches’ bathrooms or portable toilets, kitchens and a shower house.

“We are working with the City of Olympia to change ordinances and provide money,” Tammy said.

Evergreen Christian Center, an Assembly of God Church, has put up $300,000 to hire a downtown homeless coordinator, because churches are providing the main response to homelessness through Union Gospel Mission, Shelters, Just Housing support of encampments. The Salvation Army is trying to expand the number of beds and open a day center.

United Churches continues to support an encampment. Members go to Monday meetings at one, bringing propane stoves and plastic storage bins, and cleaning up trash.

“I have personally gone and visited with some people in the camps,” Tammy said.  “They are just like the rest of us.”

Peter, who is retired from 35 years of working with the World Bank and U.S. AID to solve problems related to water and transportation systems around the world, and his wife settled in Olympia 12 years ago, halfway between their children in Eugene and Seattle. When they were living in Washington, D.C., during his work, they attended the Rock Springs UCC.

His interest in supporting people who are vulnerable started in the 1960s when he was teaching in the Peace Corps in Ghana.  In the 1960s and 1970s, he studied engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), business administration at Harvard, studied urban planning at MIT, and was a lecturer there from 1987 to 1988.

In Olympia, Peter has been involved for 10 years with Camp Quixote, which grew from a political protest to pressure the city to support homeless people. It developed a camp that has rotated among churches for five years.

“Now an alliance of 11 faith communities is working in partnership with the city to identify sites for tiny houses,” Peter said. “We are working so more can move from camping to find permanent homes.”

“Some tiny houses may just have a bed and a door that can be locked so it’s a safe place to keep belongings,” he said.

Olympia plans for volunteers to build a village of 40 $2,500 tiny houses by mid-December, Peter said. Faith communities are also making plans to build tiny houses.

For information, call 360-352-6225 or email


Pacific Northwest United Church News - Copyright © November-December 2018


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