Indoor tiny house village for homeless people set to open next month in Minneapolis

Avivo Village brings the concept of a tiny home community indoors for a homeless shelter for 100 people in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Inside a former publishing warehouse in Minneapolis’ trendy North Loop neighborhood, an entire tiny house community is being built to shelter 100 people experiencing homelessness.

By the time it opens next month, street names will be added to the rows between the structures, each with four to eight individual rooms painted green, blue, yellow and gray.

“The colors will create kind of neighborhoods,” said Emily Bastian, Avivo’s vice president of ending homelessness. “We really want it to feel like a village.”

While tiny home shelter communities have been built outside in warmer parts of the country, Avivo Village is the first to recreate the concept indoors.

Each room, with its own locking door, provides a level of privacy and personal space uncommon in many shelters. And long term, it could prove to be a more affordable alternative to leasing hotel rooms, which local nonprofits and governments have been doing since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

Avivo received $6 million from the state, county and city to launch what is now a two-year pilot with the idea that the program could be funded long term through existing state programs like MNCare and Housing Support.

The additional space comes at a critical time for the metro area, with shelters regularly turning people away for lack of space. Recent sub-zero temperatures have led shelters to temporarily expand beyond capacity, squeezing people in common areas to escape deadly weather, even as the pandemic continues to threaten lives.

The concept emerged last summer, as the homelessness crisis in the Twin Cities became painfully visible, with hundreds of people living in sprawling encampments in parks and empty lots across the cities. It’s gone through a few iterations since then, delaying its opening until early March.

They wanted to create something that would appeal to people who tend to avoid staying in traditional shelters for a number of reasons, such as wanting to stay with a partner, or having a pet. Dogs will be allowed to stay inside, and will have their own grassy area next to an outdoor patio space.

Unlike many shelters, Avivo Village will also be open all day and night, meaning people don’t need to pack up and leave during the day. And, Avivo will take a “harm reduction” approach to substance use disorder, so people won’t be turned away if they’re high or drunk.

Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness for Avivo, says she expects people to stay 30-45 days as case managers help residents move into permanent housing. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“Our focus is working with people that truly are in tents on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings, places not meant for habitation, or folks that just are not accessing traditional shelter for whatever reason,” Bastian said.

Only adults will be allowed to stay in Avivo Village although they will have a large room parents can use to visit with their children.

Avivo Village is also designed with Native people in mind — although not exclusive to Native people — and a partnership with the White Earth Nation is in the works. That’s because Native people are overrepresented among people living outside.

Avivo surveyed the two largest encampments in Minneapolis last summer and found nearly half of the residents identified as Native American. By contrast, about 1% of Minnesota residents are Native.

The goal is for people to stay about 30 to 45 days, as Avivo case managers on site help people find and maintain permanent housing across the metro area.

“We’re really looking at getting people in and getting them out,” Bastian said. “We do not want this to be a permanent situation for anyone.”

Avivo has a track record of doing so. When the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd came dangerously close to a large encampment, Avivo moved dozens of people into a suburban hotel. They then emptied the hotel by finding nearly everyone housing. They filled the same hotel up again when the area that used to be a sprawling encampment called the Wall of Forgotten Natives was retaken by social workers fed up with encampments being cleared by the city and park board.

Residents of their hotel helped select the meal provider for Avivo Village and gave feedback on the designs.

Avivo was present for the original Wall of Forgotten Natives, in 2018, and helped dozens of people move from the encampment into permanent housing. The city of Minneapolis eventually cleared the encampment by building a temporary shelter — called a navigation center — nearby in partnership with the Red Lake Nation and Simpson Housing.

Avivo continues to support over 250 people in maintaining stable housing from that time — and 900 people overall across the metro.

The navigation center in 2019 was designed around similar principles as Avivo Village — low-barrier access, on-site social services and Native-specific cultural resources. But they’ve improved on what didn’t work.

To start, the sheer number of people — 175 — was difficult to manage at the navigation center. Drug use and overdoses were common, and one person died, although the number could easily have been much higher if staff and residents weren’t equipped with the overdose antidote Naloxone.

People also didn’t have much privacy. Dozens of people slept in three large, tent-like structures with just a curtain between cots. Residents had to go outside in the dead of winter to separate trailers for bathrooms, meals and meetings with social workers.

Avivo Village has shared showers and bathrooms, but they’re all under the same roof along with around-the-clock security and support staff. Each person also has their own unit, even couples.

“People need their own space, even if they are in a partnership or a relationship,” Bastian said. “It’s nice to have your own space.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.