Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there already was a housing crisis in the United States, with an estimated number of 567,715 people experiencing homelessness across the nation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s 2019 research, minorities (Black and Latinx people) are more likely to be “working poor,” “near poor” or unemployed. Therefore, on average, they’re less equipped with liquid assets (cash and/or savings) to weather a recession, which increases vulnerability during an already vulnerable time. Moreover, limited resources and overcrowded shelters have made it almost impossible to follow proper health protocols, only putting homeless citizens more at risk during the pandemic. Here in Wilmington, homelessness is up 98% since Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc on the East Coast in September 2018.
Randy Evans, founder and director of Walking Tall Wilmington, a local nonprofit focused on building meaningful relationships with those in poverty, knows how access to housing can impact a person and their autonomy. “It gives the individual the ability to choose what they eat, how they diet, reduces stress and anxiety and provides them with necessary tools to obtain mental and physical healthcare,” he details.
While Evan focuses on building interpersonal relationships with individuals experiencing poverty, by sharing meals with them, providing them resources and just offering a friendly face and supportive ear, another local project is hoping to build shelter that creates more stability. Eden Village is dedicated to eradicating homelessness by building tiny homes and cultivating communities. Currently, it’s in its development stages to build a 33-unit tiny home community that will begin construction in 2022. The development will be positioned next to the new Salvation Army Shelter (1220 N. 30th St.) and will consist of 33 single-person hurricane-proof homes. Each exterior will be painted a different color, with a full kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. Units are 27 feet long and have an 8-foot-long front porch.
“That is bigger than what my son and his wife have living as software developers in San Francisco!” says Eden Village co-founder and president Tom Dalton. “We hope to make homelessness a short-term situation. Our tagline is: ‘Imagine A City Where No One Sleeps Outside.’”
Eden Villages are specifically designed to provide a permanent housing solution to chronically homeless individuals. The first Eden Village opened its doors in Springfield, Missouri, in 2018; it provides affordable housing to 29 people. The second Eden Village in Missouri is ready to open next month, while the third and fourth villages are being developed in the state as well. The average age for residents in the Springfield village is 55, with most having been homeless for over five years.
Dalton, an anesthesiologist, and his wife, Kim, a nurse, both have done international missionary work in impoverished nations for over 25 years. Inspired by a Kenyan missionary in 2018, the Daltons decided to continue their work in the Port City, by offering health care to homeless citizens on a regular basis. Also established researchers, the pair started visiting with local homeless advocates and partnered with New Hanover Regional Medical Center to assess what could be done.
“We found there was a disconnect between medical providers and homeless [patients] who frequented the hospital emergency rooms,” Dalton explains. “At NHRMC a 26-year old female diabetic patient is a frequent visitor in our intensive care units. She has a diabetic seizure, EMS is called, she is taken to our ICU with very high blood sugar, we put her on an insulin drip and fix her blood sugar, we discharge her to her tent on 15th street, with an instruction sheet about how to take care of her diabetes, and two weeks later she has a seizure. Insulin requires refrigeration. It takes supplies to check your blood sugar. Mental illness is treatable. Hypertension can be managed. Diabetes can be controlled. All of them are better managed when living in a controlled environment. Housing can increase a homeless person’s life expectancy as much as 30 years.”
Their work through NHRMC spurred the Daltons to dig deeper into the problem and dedicate themselves to find successful, sustainable solutions to chronic homelessness. “What we’ve found from our research is that [those] small living communities offer the critical component of a supportive community, which is absent in the lives of many homeless folks,” Dalton details. “Housing is health care and having a strong community is part of the solution to homelessness.”
For $300 a month residents can live in a home fully furnished with appliances, dishes, linens and most living essentials to help them successfully get back on their feet. Each resident pays a fixed, monthly, below-market rental rate, including utilities, to encourage employment and personal income. Dalton says the village plans on building a 2,500-square-foot community center that will include a 24-hour laundromat and commercial kitchen, with dining space for group meals. The Eden Village team stresses the importance that the number of houses is kept to a minimum to cultivate a tight-knit community. “Every resident needs to know every neighbor’s name,” Dalton says.
Evans of Walking Tall believes the new community will provide a breakthrough for Wilmington’s homeless population. He supports the tiny home concept and hopes the rest of the city will appreciate its value as well.
“We believe ‘community’ will be the bedrock for people to find stability,” Evans says. “Eden Village is an excellent first step for an individual who is experiencing poverty to find self-worth and self-respect. However, as much as poverty is physical, it’s also mental. We must take a holistic approach to this community, offering respect, love, mental health care and other resources. If all this is not married together, the individual is simply given a roof over their head.”
Evans also sees the project helping clean up uglier parts of humanity that affect homeless citizens directly—specifically, folks taking advantage of them. “Eden Village would help take down the ‘slum lord/boarding’ houses throughout the city,” he adds. “This city is infested with people who are simply looking to make a dollar off the backs of people who are vulnerable.”
In order to qualify for a residence in the village, an individual must have experienced homelessness locally in Wilmington for at least a year, have a chronic medical condition, physical or mental disability, and have a guaranteed income. Most residents use disability benefits as their primary source. Each home costs around $600 a month to maintain. Wilmington’s Eden Village wants to subsidize half of the home through an endowment. The entire development will hire three employees (property manager, home team volunteer coordinator and office support worker) and estimate an operational cost of approximately $125,000 per year. The village also will include a 1-acre community garden that can provide as many as 275 meals per resident. Residents have the option to work for the village for job experience and meals.
“This new complex will offer social support services, which will greatly decrease our operational costs,” Dalton says. “Our office space will be open to outside social services but we won’t employ them.”
Tom Brown, a retired Certified Public Accountant (CPA), handles the nonprofit’s grant writing and finances to help fund the project. With over $880,000 raised in private funding since March, Dalton says the village seeks to spend $40,000 on each home. The tiny homes are constructed in Laurinburg, NC, at Manis Custom Homes, a modular home builder. Eden Village has partnered with numerous local churches and businesses in the area to help fund the project.
Eden Village is able to keep rental prices low because of more than a dozen donors like the Salvation Army, Vigilant Hope, First Fruit Ministries and others. Without them, Dalton says the project wouldn’t be possible. With approximately 400 unsheltered citizens to date living in New Hanover County, the probability for Eden Village to expand locally also is on the horizon.
“If each church in the area took responsibility for sheltering a couple of people and giving them an on-site job, who knows what is possible,” Dalton says.