he power of volunteers is incredible. Thurston county charity groups, students and volunteers united in an effort to house the unhoused in the Olympia community. Lacey, Olympia and Gateway Rotary clubs, Community Youth Services’ Youth Build and the Olympia Union Gospel Mission partnered in a construction project and built five tiny new homes.
The genesis of the project was with an application submitted to local Rotary club members proposing the idea of building the tiny homes for the homeless. Each year, Rotary clubs review such proposals requesting support. The Youth Build program with Community Youth Services proposed the tiny home project and was selected as the recipient of Rotary’s financial assistance. With funding from three different Rotary clubs and matching funds from the Rotary district level, Youth Build began their construction project at the New Market Skills Center in Tumwater with a total of $21,000.00. In its twelfth year at New Market, Youth Build is a program for students ranging from 16 to 20 learn construction trade and medical field skills while committing to earn their GED or high school diploma.
The construction students gain job experience and trade skills simultaneously and are able to see tangible results from their efforts. “There is no way to quantify the pride that the students get from completing a project such as a home,” says Matt Newton, construction instructor at New Market. Many of Newton’s students on the build had experienced homelessness themselves at one point in their lives. The plan was to build four small dwellings, each insulated, with a window, a front door and electricity. These small homes were destined for those without shelter in the community. Funding ended up being enough to build five homes in all.
The one room structures are about the size of a small bedroom. A built-in bed lines the far wall under a bright window. A table and chair sit under another window by the front door. Olympia Union Gospel Mission’s Jackie Smith, wife of Steve Smith OUGM’s pastor of Sunday worship and chaplain of street ministries, is the lead volunteer preparing the interior of the homes and bringing people into the residences. Each dwelling will have a washable mattress, underbed storage bins and a small table. Electricity runs a wall heater and lights. Blinds in the windows, a place to hang one’s hat and a door to close out the rain make it an uplifting place to stay.
Providing shelter for those without a home has been a consistent effort for the Mission. OUGM, a faith based community outreach, serves those who are homeless or are in poverty by providing health, recovery and meal programs. “Over the years, we at the Mission have encountered many men and women who were yearning for a different life but were afraid to leave what was familiar, unsure of what they were seeking or how to harness the resources to begin the journey of change,” Skip Steffens, volunteer on the project shares. “It has been a dream of mine to create an island of refuge in the sea of chaos that is life on the street. A place where they are met with love and acceptance, but also a place where they are accountable for sobriety and behaviors acceptable in mainstream society. A place that can act as a bridge to support them in finding directions in their lives and provide the resources to start them on the journey to where their interests and God given potential may take them. These tiny houses are that island of refuge and Jackie Smith will provide the needed support and mentorship.”
When COVID-19 closed schools, including New Market and its building project, construction came to a halt. The houses were not quite finished and next steps were unknown. Within the Rotary club, discussions began about how to continue the project with pandemic distancing precautions. Logistical questions arose and the desire to complete the goal for those in need persisted. The first order of business was to find a place to finish the houses.
At the same time OUGM was seeking solutions for sheltering increasing numbers of homeless individuals during the pandemic. A wonderful thing about volunteers is that they love what they do and look for more ways to be involved. With many people brainstorming solutions, the idea of moving the tiny structures to the Mission’s downtown lot was born. “We were thinking tents,” said Jackie Smith, “and God gave us houses.” With the structures relocated, volunteers stepped in to finish them. Many joined the effort including Rotary members from three different area clubs as well as the Mission. Interior and exterior finishing construction was completed on site. Furnishings and supplies have been and will be provided through donations to the Mission.
A small celebration unveiled the new homes. OUGM and Rotary volunteers attended, Youth Build’s instructor and other those representing city and county support services and public office. Each home was open for viewing. Front doors were open, the blinds letting through sunlight. The transitional units are already expecting their first tenets and are a testament to the amazing feats that volunteer organizations can accomplish.
The Olympia Union Gospel Mission and the new tiny homes are located at 413 Franklin Street in Olympia.