On July 21, 14 people moved into Denver’s very first tiny home village for the homeless. Out of 60 people surveyed, the 14 were selected based on their need and any legitimate barriers they may have for entering a shelter. The concept, located at 38th and Walnut, is currently temporary (they have 180 days to prove the concept is valid before the lease is renewed). But while it may not be officially long term, its new residents are already making these tiny houses into homes. We sat down with three of the current residents (selected by availability and interest in being interviewed), to get a peek inside their lives. Read on to meet Christine, Sandra and Cersilla.
For as long as Christine can remember she’s always been on the move. Growing up, her family lived all over— bouncing from Texas to New York, Los Angeles and even Puerto Rico. Her mother, an artist and a writer, subscribed to a transient lifestyle by constantly finding a temporary home on friends’ couches. At the age of 19, Christine was exhausted of her mother’s pursuits and took off on her own. “I was half kicked out, half runaway,” she explained. It wasn’t long until she was once again on the move, but this time she traded a couch for a train.
“I took a hop on the freight trains [and] went all around the country for about seven years,” she said. During her travel, Christine explained she was able to see incredible beauty among the inherent difficulties of a life in transit. “When you’re driving across the country you see a lot of gas stations. You see a lot of power lines and see a lot of streets and when you’re riding the freight trains you see nothing for as far as the eye can [see],” she said. She goes on describe the almost alien contrasts of the Salt Flats in Utah to the perennially snow capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains. Christine didn’t travel alone though as she was even able to keep her beloved dog Napalm by her side. “I’ve had him for 13 years,” she explained of the now blind and grayed mutt. Eventually, driven by pure curiosity, her and Napalm made their way to Denver for the first time. Here she befriended a gallery owner and welder who let her sleep on the floor of his welding shop. During her stay she quickly became interested in his profession. This led her to enroll in vocational school at Emily Griffith where she worked towards her certificate to be a pipe fitter. But just as things seemed to be smoothing out in her life she hit a kink and she found herself evicted due to the residence not being up to code.
Christine, someone not prone to complacency, quickly landed herself another job after befriending employees at the Conoco just down the street from where she now lives at the Tiny Home Village. Even while maintaining a job during her period of homelessness she continued to pursue her certification at Emily Griffith. “When I was working at the Conoco I would go to school at [noon] get off school at 9 [p.m.] ride my bike to Conoco and work from 10 to 6 a.m. then sleep again for a few hours,” she said. “I was working full time and going to school full time and I was doing that for three years.” In addition to her tireless pursuit to better her life, and battling her own homelessness, Christine has also found time to give back volunteering at Sox Place, a non-profit that serves homeless youth. It was there where she became aware of the Village and interviewed for a spot. She has been dating her boyfriend, Trenton, for three years (they first met because he was a regular at the Conoco). They decided to apply to the Village as a pair, along with Trenton’s dog Fargo. Landing this space would be vastly important for the couple as shelters separate men and women (and don’t allow pets). These factors put Christine and Trenton high on the list as potential residents since the Village was seeking people who had barriers to entering homeless shelters (whether it be having a pet, a partner or a disability).
As soon as the pair moved in on July 21, Christine already had a new vision for her life. She’s finished her certificate at Emily Griffith and is now working as a welder at Mile High workshop. Currently, she is aiming to start her own welding business so she can save and buy land outside of Denver. “I wanna marry my boyfriend and start a family. I don’t want to do it like my mom did and couch surfing and hopping around. I want to have my own house that no one can take away from me,” she said.
When Christine explains this vision for her life she says it with true ardor — it is no half baked promise. “I’m very driven,” she said. She explained she sees homelessness as a product of circumstance not of laziness or lack of direction. “[Homelessness] can happen to anyone. Like it’s one mistake that can be out of your control without a safety net,” she explained. Christine is determined to weld herself that safety net, literally and metaphorically. “I have a lot of goals for the future,” she said. The Tiny Home is just the first step.
When you meet Sandra, a stout woman with dark brown hair and light blue eyes, it’s clear she doesn’t smoke. Her skin is without any sign of age and her fingernails are perfectly clean. When she smiles, her teeth are a hint of off white. So it was surprising when she pulled out a small tin box filled with half used cigarettes she calls snipes. “I find snipes all the time. They’re used, but not useless,” she said, explaining she often gives them as gifts to other residents. This week, Sandra is the one that is expecting a present.
Tuesday marked Sandra’s 27th birthday. According to her, it was the first time in her adult life she would spend it in her own home. “My dad sent me a present last Wednesday. It hasn’t arrived yet, but it will,” she said — another perk of having a permanent address. However, this is new for Sandra. Self-proclaimed an “army brat,” she’s not familiar with staying in one place long. To her, “home” is not just one place, it’s an entire region. “I’m from the deep south. We moved from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, back to Alabama,” she said. After her parents divorced, her mom moved to Florida where she would ultimately live and try her hand at college. “[That] didn’t quite work out as planned,” she explained. By 2013 she found herself in Denver. She moved because she heard there was little humidity. “I don’t like humidity. It was killing my sinuses,” she said. Once in Denver, she was able to stay with a friend and land a job at a Taco Bell, where she still works. It wasn’t until January 2 of this year where she found herself in a tight spot and a conflict with a landlord left her on the streets. During those months, Sandra bounced between shelters and the streets often finding refuge at the Delores Project. She mentioned she is thankful for women’s shelters as many of her male peers don’t have it as easy. “There are very few men shelters in Denver… if you go to a shelter that is co-ed or for guys, they don’t care,” she said. But during her time without a home, Sandra found herself in need of a companion. Little did she know this would ultimately lead her to her new found home.
Like Christine, Sandra has two pets. But instead of dogs, she preferred rats. “They’re very smart. They’re like basically tiny dogs that don’t bark,” she explained. In June of this year, she purchased Orellio, and later Blueberry Muffin, from a breeder. She was able to keep her pets by her side only when she was outside of the shelter, as many don’t allow pets. This, along with Sandra’s apparent calm and articulate demeanor, made her a prime candidate for living at the village since she now has a reason that would disqualify her from staying in most shelters. It’s almost ironic that rats, something one may associate with homelessness, is one reason Sandra now has a home. But for Sandra, their presence seems to add a sense of pride as you can spot her striding through the village, with one perched on her shoulder. It’s obvious the ability to own and house her own pet is important to her — likely because it symbolizes something that is hard to do as a homeless person. So what does Sandra want for her birthday? A third cage for her soon-to-be newest pet.
When Cersilla looks outside the window of her new Tiny Home, she can’t help but feel overjoyed. “I have a mountain view! I have my own mountain view!” she said. The 30-year-old Ohio native has a deep love of the mountains and Colorado. When she left the Midwest earlier this year, she describes feeling an immediate affinity towards the state. “On that Greyhound bus on my way here I kept thinking to myself, I’m on my way home,” she said. In fact, while she has been living in the Tiny Home village she has been working on capturing her feelings of kinship through song. “I’m learning how to play guitar,” she said. “But sadly the guitar that I’m learning on [inaudible] one of the tuning pegs broke off.” But that doesn’t keep her from practicing the new track titled “I’m Home” so she can perform it for her fellow residents, many of who she considers family.
Cersilla, who identifies as transgender, hasn’t always felt a sense of community like she does at the Tiny Village. She describes her last two years of homelessness as incredibly hard but it was a decision she had to make in order to get herself out of a difficult situation. But through her period of homelessness, she’s gained close allies including her “street mom,” Aurora, another resident at the Tiny Home Village. “She helped me become the woman that I am now,” she said.
Cersilla also has a roommate named Kim, who was at work at Kings Soopers. Cersilla is currently in between jobs but she is spending her downtime working on her art. She’s even writing a sci-fi fantasy novel and she’s currently on chapter nine. “It’ll probably [be] around 15 chapters,” she said. The stable environment is a good springboard for her, as shelters often don’t accept transgender people. According to a study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 71 percent of transgender people experiencing homelessness were denied services because of their gender identity. This is because typically women-only shelters do not accept gay men or trans women. Like Christine and Sandra, Cersilla faced barriers to finding refuge in the shelter system. Cersilla was also at risk for increased violence while out on the streets (the 2016 version of the same report showed a spike in violence against transgender homeless people in the last year). So when the opportunity at the Tiny Home Village came around, it’s no surprise that Cersilla is overwhelmed by a sense of place. The village may not be officially permanent but to her, this is home.
All photography by Austin Cope.