Tiny houses have big impact for homeless

Apr 20, 2016

The number of homeless New Yorkers seems to be on the rise, so much so that a group of 51 millionaires recently petitioned the state government to raise their taxes permanently from 7.65 percent to nearly 10 percent to “invest in pathways out of poverty up the economic ladder for fellow citizens.”

Most of the funds and focus on homelessness is in New York City, where more than 100,000 people are without permanent shelter.

But what if you find yourself homeless in upstate New York? Lack of funds and resources can make access to services much harder.

However, one Ithaca-area man is trying to make a big impact on the homeless — one tiny house at a time.

Carmen Guidi is founder of Second Wind Village, located just a few miles outside of Ithaca. The "tiny homes" provide shelter and independence for homeless men.
Credit Jenna Flanagan

Carmen Guidi is founder of Second Wind Village, nestled in Newfield, just a few miles outside of Ithaca. The collection of nine “tiny houses” built on his property wasn’t inspired by the attention such structures have been getting lately.

Rather, Guidi said he was divinely inspired after good will trips to Honduras and Haiti. He also considered how he would want to live if he were homeless.

“I knew nothing about a tiny home anything. Once we started putting together these ‘tiny houses,’ I know I would like to live that way if I was that, and that’s why these men do so well here.”

The auto body repair tech created the cottage village as a nonprofit, and private donations and volunteers help build each $15,000 home.

Guidi said the cottages meet a crucial need for the homeless.

“They give the men a level of dignity that they can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “Even though they don’t own the houses, they still take an ownership, they take pride around the surroundings. Here’s the thing, they want to stay in community, yet they want to have their own time, too, in their own space.”

The cottages are like autonomous studio apartments, allowing the residents to regain a sense of normalcy with their own kitchen, bathroom and living space. Some even keep pets in their home.

Second Wind serves only homeless men, although Guidi hopes to expand the project to include individual housing for women and children at a separate location.

While he’s not a professional social worker, Guidi has been reaching out to and building relationships with Ithaca’s homeless for years.

“A lot of the times when people are put into the program-type models, they feel like a project. Here, the men, they don’t feel like a project.”

Just off Ithaca’s main commercial boulevard, behind a popular multinational discount department store, is a field overgrown with underbrush and a thicket of trees. It’s become an unofficial campground.

Most people might not notice it at all, but to the homeless of Ithaca and Tompkins County, it is well-known as “The Jungle.”

Guidi makes frequent trips to the area. He said most of the relationships he’s built start with him offering food or supplies, and eventually he’s able to convince some to move into the Second Wind Cottages.

The Jungle may look desolate and bleak, but that’s not where all of the homeless in Ithaca find themselves.

Nels Bohn, director of Ithaca’s Urban Renewal Agency, said the city successfully houses most of their homeless. The “unsheltered” population, including those who live in The Jungle, is about 15 to 20people.

“I think we pretty well know most of our homeless persons by first name and understand their needs a little bit better because we have the advantage of being so small,” Bohn said. “The disadvantage is once we fill up our emergency shelter or Magnolia House project, we don’t have any more room. There’s just limited capacity.”

As a smaller city, Ithaca has about 40 emergency shelters, one new shelter called Magnolia Project, for women and children, and about 100 permanent supportive housing units.

Bohn said the city is supportive of Guidi’s Second Wind project but noted that addressing the issue means more than just a roof over their heads and food on the table.

“Building a facility by itself probably won’t solve all the needs because people come with a lot of issues that they have to work through,” Bohn said. “You know they worked their way down to homelessness, they have to work their ways back out of homelessness and success. Support services is always an area where there is not enough funding to address the need in our opinion.”

Everything from addiction to mental health to job training and family crisis services are all offered to people in need through state and federal agencies, and Bohn said Guidi has begun to work with them to better serve the Second Wind residents.

Both men agree that for anyone to begin to address homelessness in a metropolis like New York City or in smaller upstate cities like Ithaca, it first has to begin with affordable housing for everyone.

According to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which offers housing and support services, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing a five-year, $20 billion investment.

Half will go to build 100,000 units of affordable housing across the state; the other half will be used to build out the state’s supportive services and 20,000 more beds to accompany state services.

As for the Second Wind Cottages, Guidi is already working on adding nine more cottages with a main house that can accommodate some of the state services that are needed.

There is no timeline on how long each resident can stay. So far, the longest have been there three years, a triumph for some of the residents.

The city of Ithaca has helped Guidi attain rental funds for the men, but even as they expand, Second Wind Cottages has a waiting list of almost 30 people.