“Sounds like you’re describing a neighbor”

Released March 26, 2018

JULIA: It’s a hot Saturday afternoon. I’m standing in the backyard of a house in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood and all around me, volunteers are hard at work.

MAN: It's kind of surreal. I didn't think it would be this big? *Laughing* It's huge! It's 109 square feet. You don't realize how large-
JULIA: It feels different in a garden.
MAN: Yeah in a garden, it's massive.

MAN 2: I've done a very small part of this, but together we've created this house. How cool is that?

DAN: So this is the front. You come in and there’s a, uh, toilet and shower.
KIM: And some shelving...
DAN: ...Some shelving...
KIM: ...And then this wall is all windows

JULIA: This is Dan and Kim. We’re standing in their backyard. In just a few weeks, this is gonna be  someone’s home.

KIM: Our neighbor Robert is going to have the little porch on his house where he can have friends over and he'll have a garden.

JULIA: Kim’s talking about is Robert, a 75-year-old man who’s gonna be moving into a 109 square-foot home in their backyard. Robert’s been homeless for the past 10 years. But now, he’s  going to be the first participant in a brand new initiative called the BLOCK Project.

You can think of it as a challenge to the city of Seattle. The BLOCK Project asks people to voluntarily welcome a homeless person to live in a “tiny home” in their backyard. It’s the latest in a slew of socially conscious micro-housing projects that have been popping up in the last decade. But in this case, the vision for the project is anything but tiny.

JULIA: This is Design Can Save the World. I’m Julia Drachman.

REX HOHLBEIN, TEDX TALK: What do we do with all the information we are constantly hearing about homelessness? Do we take it in? Does it touch us? Most importantly, does it motivate us to get involved in some way?

JULIA: That’s Rex Holbein. He’s one of the two architects behind the BLOCK Project. While he was talking, Rex flipped through these beautiful black and white portraits of people who are living on the streets or in their cars, saying their names.

REX: How could I be so disconnected from the simple, obvious fact that homelessness involves real people with real suffering?

ULA KULPA: Julia, how did you find this guy?

JULIA: This is Ula, my co-producer

ULA: Hey guys.

JULIA: So I heard actually Rex talk at this sustainability architecture conference last year, but this is a clip is from a TedX Talk in Seattle in 2014. The way that Rex talked about homelessness moved me. He told the story of how his interactions -- his friendships -- with a few homeless people changed the course of his life. Up to that point, he’d been running a successful, high-end architecture practice, but his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. He needed to make some changes. So at that point, Rex started a facebook page called Facing Homelessness where he posted photos that he would take and stories he would write of the homeless people he met. In 2013, the project became a full-fledged non-profit whose aim was to further share those stories with the wider Seattle community. He wanted to give everyone a chance to get to know the people that they passed by every day.

REX: Here’s the thing. Over the last four years, I have seen an unending stream of kindness come into my office. Kindness that did not try to fix anyone. Kindness that did not try to control the outcome of a donation. Kindness just for kindness’ sake.

JULIA: Rex’s enthusiasm and sincerity is contagious. His vision is beautiful and the actions he suggests are tangible. It’s really the perfect recipe for making real change in your life.

ULA: So did you try it?

JULIA: I totally tried it! The week after I heard him talk, I would try to bring myself to smile or say, “hi” to the homeless people that I passed in downtown Seattle.  And...I just couldn’t do it! It was impossible. It felt like I just had this routine of avoiding eye contact and it was so hard to break it. I was embarrassed because I believed Rex when he was talking, but it was just so hard to do in real life?

ULA: So what was the next step? How did you resolve that within yourself?

JULIA: Well I decided that I needed a little more information about how to start those conversations, or I needed to understand a little more what he was talking about in a deeper sense. So, I decided to go talk to some of the people at his organization, Facing Homelessness.

JULIA: To get to the Facing Homelessness office, you walk down this alleyway in Seattle’s University District and knock on the basement window of a church. I stopped by to chat with the two incredible women who run the office...both named Sara/h.

SARAH STEILIN: We make sure that if someone doesn’t have access to the internet that we try to invite them to the office as much as possible to read through the comments with them.

JULIA: That’s Sarah Steilin -- Sarah with an “h” -- she’s the Community Director of Facing Homelessness.

SARAH: Every single time it just brings people to tears and people are just like, “I did not expect so much support.” There’s so much hostility that’s held for people living outside that sometimes they’re just a little bit surprised by all the love and encouragement and support that is out there. When people come to our office, it feels like time and space slow down a bit and we’re able to just be people together.

JULIA: Sarah’s eyes twinkled the whole time we talked. It’s hard to imagine Sarah not doing this kind of work. For her, it’s not just about providing help and guidance. It’s about building a community, one relationship at a time.

SARAH: Sometimes it starts with a compliment and just you know saying that, oh, I like your sweater. Or you’ve got a really lovely smile. How are things going today?

JULIA: You’re not like, I’m here for you. You’re like “we’re here together.

SARAH: We’re here together. Exactly.

JULIA: Sarah’s generosity doesn’t  feel like an inconvenience or a sacrifice. It seems to fuel her. She told me that every day she is reminded of how many people she loves and how much she is loved in return.

ULA: So what about everyone else in the office? Is it all, like, kumbaya like that?

JULIA: Well, yes, it kind of is….but it’s not like everyone in the office had the same immediate pull to working with homelessness. Sara Vander-Zanden -- that’s Sara, no “h” -- she’s the Executive Director of Facing Homelessness. But if you had told her that this would be her job two years ago, she probably would not have believed you. Back when Sara was job hunting, she ruled out non-profits that dealt with homelessness. It was just too hard to engage with emotionally.  

SARA VANDER-ZANDEN: I just I felt like it was such an overwhelming issue and like it just wasn't my issue. Like it just felt so raw and so vulnerable and I couldn't even fathom where to insert myself and how my skill set could help solve the problem.

JULIA: That disclaimer went out the window after she spoke with Rex and Sarah about their vision for a place that truly treated people as people, not as statistics.

SARA: you don't need to know the solution to begin. You don't need to know how to solve someone's life problems to say hello. I think we have a tendency to intellectualize social justice issues and it's a way of distancing ourselves from them. The mission of Facing Homelessness confronts that. And it challenges people to move beyond that and to get close.

ULA: Sounds like she was totally convinced 

JULIA: Yeah! She told me that she called her husband -- and they had previously decided she could not take this job because it would be too emotionally exhausting. She called him up after this conversation and he said, “I think you should take this job based on your excitement right now. And if you do, we are declaring our little family’s religion. This will be the story of our lives.”

SARA: And I just starting crying and knew it was meant to be the story of our lives.

JULIA: And In every interview I’ve done for this story, there’s been a moment like this: when the person has decided to peek over the wall between them and the homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk. I’ve come to recognize it as the moment when the person has decided that homelessness can’t be solved from a distance -- it has to be addressed up close. It’s right there in their motto, written on the wall of their office on a big green sign: “Just Say Hello.”

ULA: So that’s great and I’m into it, and I’m into the mentality, but I wonder, how does it go from just a mentality, just a philosophy, to a bunch of tiny homes.

JULIA: Well you have to remember that Rex is an architect and he decided that there was way that he could leverage his knowledge and skills as an architect in service of the Facing Homelessness mission. And at the same time, his daughter, Jenn Lafreniere, was working as an architect in Seattle, and was tossing around a lot of the same questions as her dad. They started getting together for weekly coffee meetings, scheming about working together. Here’s Jenn:

JENN LAFRENIERE: This whole project is based on connections and making sure that it's not strictly a landlord-tenant situation, where it's a money transaction and things get tense. It is building a friendship with someone.

ULA: Well so, that’s my other question -- how are they gonna pay for it?

JULIA: That’s a very good question, so currently the project is entirely funded through donations. But as they grow, they’re planning to draw up a lease structure that will ask the resident to contribute a percentage of his or her monthly earnings. So it’ll always be low enough to keep the project affordable for everyone regardless of their income, but high enough to partially cover the construction costs of the next homes.

JENN: So when we do have a few hundred of these throughout the city, if each home is, say, only generating 100 or 200 dollars a month, it still adds up. And so the more block homes that are out there, the more funding we get.  

ULA: So, I think part of what might be confusing about this for someone who’s not in Seattle is why it works for Seattle. It’s hard to be in NY and see this kind of solution working for a New York version of homelessness, so why does it work there?

JULIA: Yeah it might not work in New York as well. One of the first reasons it seems to work in Seattle is it’s a city that is really full of single-family homes with spare backyards. But also, the city’s changing a lot. If you haven’t been to Seattle in the last few years, it may be hard to imagine how quickly the city is changing. Rent prices are going up four times faster than the national average. Houses are consistently selling above their asking price. The growth has been devastating for Seattle’s most vulnerable citizens. Seattle now has the 3rd largest homeless population in the US, with an estimated 12,000 people living without homes.

And that brings us back to Jenn and Rex. They felt that their solution could actually work for Seattle -- it was free land in a city where land values are skyrocketing. But they still worried about the plausibility of convincing people to invite a homeless person to live in their backyard. They were afraid of the Not-In-My-Backyard -- or “NIMBY”-- attitude.

REX: We were -- Jenn and I were hyper- aware of NIMBYism -- Not In my Backyard. And so here we were, doing a project that was the exact opposite, yes in my backyard. We were hoping to turn all the little NIMBY's into little YIMBY's, you know, make a city of YIMBY's.

JULIA: They worked to make the project as unobtrusive as possible. The homes would be built sustainably, with solar panels, rain-collection, and other off-grid strategies. They’d be built in pieces off site and then quickly assembled by volunteers in the host’s backyard. The residents would be selected to match the lifestyle and concerns of the homeowners.

ULA: Like match.com?

JULIA: Exactly like match.com! And the hosts would be coached through the process of reaching out to their neighbors, helping to build trust and understanding on the block. So they did everything with the primary goal of pre-empting the NIMBYism that they anticipated.

REX: You know, the size, for instance was very important for us to keep this very small so that we did not offend anybody with its scale. I can give you a lot of examples but I think it would be enough to say that, being aware of that, permeated every design decision and every decision moving forward.

ULA: I have kind of a confession to make as I hear you tell me this story. Granted, I’m not a homeowner -- I live in a Brooklyn apartment with three other people. It’s just sort of hard for me to imagine this working and I worry that I might be a NIMBY.

JULIA: You might be. I mean that’s fair, like we are not the target demographic, right? We’re not homeowners. Like you said, you live in an apartment, I live in an apartment, we don’t have backyards. But in another sense, I think the people who are attracted to this are people you might categorize as crunchy granola mid-life Seattleites. These are people who really want to do something positive that takes their whole lifestyle, throws it up in the air and rearranges it.

And that’s what happened here. The NIMBYs either stayed away or stayed quiet, because overwhelmingly, the response was really positive. Within weeks of announcing the  BLOCK Project, they had a list of volunteers who were saying “Yes, absolutely, please build a house for a homeless person In my backyard.” The first home wasn’t even built  before the waiting list for host families grew to 50.

Once the first few pilot homes are done, they’re planning to scale the project in a major way. They’re shooting to hit 500 homes by 2022. That’ll mean 500 families who’ll be changing how they think about their backyards -- maybe even about what “property” means to them. Jenn seems to think that this kind of change isn’t actually that much of a stretch, especially considering how quickly we’ve adapted to other “sharing economy” solutions like Uber and Airbnb.

JENN: You know, 10 years ago, the idea of inviting someone into your home that you didn't know and allow them to sleep while you're sleeping just a few rooms away seems crazy or, to pick up a hitchhiker, you know, seems ridiculous. This is the same concept. Rethinking how we use our space.

JULIA: And who’s to say that we’re not open to it? 50 families have already said “yes, in my backyard.” Rex and Jenn want to give people the chance to see homelessness the way that they’ve come to see it: as a circumstance, rather than a character trait.

JENN: Allowing your kid who lives two doors down from a BLOCK home to understand that this person was previously unsheltered but now, you know, now I'm playing catch in my backyard with them, or, you know, they have great stories to tell, it allows us t o break down that negative stereotype for the next generation.

REX: We really start to see this idea of block homes becoming a very normal part of a city's fabric. And when that happens, when we flip that, you know, we think that, yes we can easily provide enough housing to end homelessness.

JULIA: So to me, it seems like the BLOCK Project does exactly what all great design solutions do: it matches available resources with critical need. It’s efficient and elegant. It not only matches the house-less with a house, or those with unused space with a use for it. It goes deeper than that. It identifies the root of the problem -- this unfulfilled desire to connect -- and it makes those connections.

Since I started reporting this story, I’ve found little ways to say hello. Maybe I’ll ask someone how they’re doing. Maybe I’ll buy a $2 pasta salad for the woman who stands on the corner near my apartment. It’s not a long term solution. It’s certainly not changing anyone’s life. But I have found something surprising: I never leave those interactions feeling heavy-hearted like I thought I would. Putting a face to homelessness doesn’t have to mean that you only expose yourself to suffering and sadness. It’s like Rex puts it:

REX: You're opening your humanity to it. And when we open our humanity to anything, we find that we're the ones enriched. You know, I think that’s a really important part of this whole process.

JULIA: It’s a beautiful day on Beacon Hill, three months after build day. I’m standing here in Kim and Dan’s backyard again. Only...there’s a house here now. A wall of windows faces the south and floods the home with evening light. Robert’s been living here for just over a month and has quickly made it his own.

DAN: He definitely has more things than he -- when we first met him because he had only what he could fit in a backpack.

JULIA: That’s Dan again. He and Kim have enjoyed watching Robert settle into his new home.

KIM: It’s fun to watch how he has unpacked his things. A child gave him this little stuffed animal that's -- it's a little turtle and he said, "I put this right facing right at the front door and this is going to be my guard dog, I'm gonna put a Beware of Dog sign on the front door."

JULIA: When they talk about Robert, they don’t sound like people who’ve turned their lives upside down.

KIM: I mean the changes in our, in our life feel to me like a shift in thinking more than um, I mean there's been zero imposition on our life. He likes having his space both physically and socially I think and so do we. But we also really like each other. So, you know, when we come together it's fun.
JULIA: Sounds like you're describing a neighbor.
KIM: Yeah, it's like having a new neighbor that we really like.

JULIA: Since moving into his new home, Robert has invited Dan and Kim over for tea and told them stories. They’ve had him over for dinner and played music together. They send each other funny links and cat memes from time to time. But Robert is a new neighbor with totally different life experiences. He was living in shelters for ten years before moving into the house in their backyard.

KIM: the things he's excited about are a little bit heartbreaking to me, like he was saying, "I have pillows. I haven't had pillows in a decade. I used to use my coat and my shoes as a pillow, cuz they don’t give us pillows in the shelter.”

JULIA: Despite having a comfortable, warm place to call home, it’s not like everything changed in Robert’s life. He still goes downtown seven days a week with a sign, collecting money and food, some of which he distributes to a whole network of homeless people, just like he’s done for the past decade. He calls it “going to work.”

KIM: It was strange at first for me. You know, I guess that I had some feeling that if he was living in our backyard, that he would suddenly, you know shed all of the trappings of having been homeless, But he's, I think it's probably very smart -- he hasn't just completely changed everything about his lifestyle.

JULIA: I’ll admit that I found this a little surprising at first. It’s easy to fall into the mindset that someone who has housing and is still standing outside and asking for food or spare change is lazy. But that’s just not how the BLOCK Project works. Instead of looking at housing as a reward for meeting some kind of criteria, they look at housing as a basic human right. Rex likes to say that there is no way that a standard lease can account for the individual nature of trauma. That’s why the BLOCK Project puts as few barriers as possible between people and housing.

KIM: Somebody asked us somewhere along the line if people were being required to get jobs if they were going to live in block homes. I mean Robert is 75. I don't want to be working when I'm 75. We're just providing the space. We don't need to contribute any judgment along with that.

ULA: I gotta ask -- did you ever get to meet Robert?

JULIA: So I did get to meet Robert. I didn’t get to interview him because his case manager felt he’d had one too many interview in this whole process. But, after our interview, Kim and Dan took me out to Robert’s home to meet him.

We knocked on the door and he gave Kim and Dan these big hugs. Then he looked at me and said, “and who’s this?” He stuck out his hand and gave me this big toothy grin. When you meet Robert, it’s hard not to smile. He’s this very short, super energetic guy, and he’s a natural host. He invited us in and showed me around his home while Kim put up some curtains she’d brought for him. The house is cozy and beautiful -- it’s bright and warm. Robert sat on his couch that pulls out into a bed and he kept us laughing the whole time. He suggested that his next sign he holds say, “single and available” and winked.

The BLOCK project’s goal is to end homelessness. To put a roof over every head. To take isolated people and build communities. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, or what the future holds for Seattle’s homeless population. But I do know that something beautiful started in that backyard.

JULIA: Design Can Save the World is produced by me, Julia Drachman, and Ula Kulpa.

ULA: Our music, including the Design Can Save the World Theme, is by Phoenix Glendinning. With additional tracks from Blue Dot Sessions. Our artwork is by Will Stack.

JULIA: Special thanks to the people you heard from, and some you didn't: Rex, Jenn, Sarah, Sara, Kim, Dan, Robert, Colleen Ecohawk, Shelly Cohen, Randy Allworth, Nathan Torgelson, and Sonja and Nathan Feuerborn.

ULA: You can find us on the Internet at dcstwpod.com, or @dcstwpod on Twitter and Instagram. That's D-C-S-T-W-Pod. This week, we've got pictures from Build Day at Kim and Dan's.