Could tiny house villages be the answer to solving Rhode Island’s homelessness crisis?

Advocates call for sanctioned encampments after Charles Street clearance

By: - August 15, 2023 5:01 am

Chandler Village is a transitional housing community in Los Angeles made up of 40 tiny houses designed and created by Pallet Shelters. (Madeline Tolle/Pallet Shelter image)

Where do Rhode Island’s unhoused go for shelter?

That was the question on everyone’s mind after an encampment for the unhoused off Charles Street in Providence was cleared Monday, Aug. 7. The answer, according to Eric Hirsh, is everywhere.

“If you harass people enough, they scatter,” said Hirsch, a professor of sociology at Providence College and director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project. 

“They can scatter, they hide, and it makes it harder for outreach workers to find them. That’s already happened with regard to Charles Street where people have scattered to probably about a dozen different locations.”

One possible avenue to address the homelessness crisis in Rhode Island is the creation of sanctioned encampments, a solution advocated for by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.

Sanctioned encampments would be officially recognized spaces for gathering where the unhoused are permitted to stay and use government-provided dumpsters, port-a-potties. Encampments might involve the use of pallet housing, tiny houses arranged in villages where residents can receive services while they wait to transition to permanent housing. 

It’s a relatively new idea, says Juan Espinoza, communications director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Case studies by Pallet — a public benefit corporation that has created 70 “villages” since 2016, according to its website — say the shelters are insulated and designed to be safe and comfortable in the winter and summer and can be a setting stone on the path to secure housing. Pallet housing generally consists of several small shelters — fit for two people apiece — surrounding a common shelter with kitchen and bath facilities set up on vacant lots. 

Debris from the homeless encampment off Charles Street and Route 146 is shown after Providence police ordered the last dozen people living there to leave Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. (Kevin G. Gomes/Rhode Island Current)

“Pallet housing is just one of many different types of solutions and is more of a rapidly deployable shelter,” Espinoza said. “It’s essentially very lightweight, fiberglass insulated, and can be installed in like an hour.”

Pallet housing was first used in Tacoma, Washington. Other locations include Los Angeles; Burlington, Vermont; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Missoula County, Montana.

Providence officials said they are working with the Rhode Island Department of Housing on exploring the possibilities for pallet housing.

“The city has been working with the state to pursue non-city owned land that may provide for the possibility of pallet or pallet-like housing in the City of Providence and will continue to do so,” said Joshua Estrella, a city spokesman via email. “We are actively working with the state to determine a timeline and potential locations.”

A spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Housing said they are working with officials in multiple municipalities about the possibility of establishing such sanctioned locations.

“We are working collaboratively with the City of Providence and other communities to see if there are potential locations that might be used for temporary structure,” said Housing Department spokesman Joe Lindstrom in an email. “It is important to note that having a location is not enough. These would require municipal and service provider partnerships to ensure access to social services, health and mental health care, substance use treatment, sanitation, security, etc.”

Staying together

Advocates for the unhoused said one of the chief benefits of sanctioned encampments was community. It can also be lifesaving. Statistical models analyzed in a report published April in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that forced displacement of residents in encampments for the unhoused lead to between 974 and 2,175 additional overdose deaths per 10,000 people over 10 years. 

Though sanctioned housing may serve as a temporary solution while officials work on strategies to increase Rhode Island’s affordable housing stock, Espinoza is hoping people will think deeper about the struggles of the unhoused.

“It’s not a solution,” Espinoza said. “It’s a temporary solution because of what the need is.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.