Apprenticeships offer a way to help the homeless while building career skills

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Washington has gained attention in recent years for its colorful villages of tiny houses used to shelter the homeless. These communities, typically ten or more small cabins surrounding shared facilities such as showers, kitchens, and laundry, help to get people off the street and out of overcrowded shelters. With a nationwide homeless population that shows no signs of slowing, representatives from municipalities nationwide travel from other states, sometimes other countries, to study existing projects in Seattle and beyond.


The “tiny homes for homeless” movement in Washington exists in large part due to innovative apprenticeship programs in the state. Washington native Melinda Nichols, a lifelong advocate of apprenticeship, helped develop and build some of the first tiny home communities in the state. From the beginning, Nichols saw that in addition to creating much-needed shelter for a growing homeless population, the tiny home projects provide new opportunities for on-the-job training. While volunteering to build shelter for the homeless, people learn new skills, discover apprenticeship programs, and make connections in the construction industry.

Like many women in the early 1970s, Nichols struggled to find work in a male-dominated field. Even with a year of vocational education under her belt, it took months to find work as a carpenter’s apprentice. After she completed the training, she spent ten years working as a carpenter, but she never forgot how long it took to find that first position. At first, her desire to help other women avoid the same struggle led her to volunteer to train apprentices on the job. Later, she trained pre-apprentices for ANEW, sat on the Washington Apprenticeship and Training Council, and eventually oversaw Washington’s entire apprentice program.


These days, Nichols serves as vice president on the board of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle, and helps coordinate tiny house builds across the state. In this role, she has led the way in using tiny house builds as a nontraditional entry point into the construction trades, especially for women and other under-represented groups. Since 2016, LIHI has worked with dozens of groups to coordinate and built over 300 tiny houses for the homeless; the mayor of Seattle recently stated a commitment to building 1,000 more. Each structure provides more opportunities. As Nichols explains, “volunteers who come to tiny house builds can experience what it’s like to be a carpenter or an electrician. They get to try out several roles, and to meet apprentices and tradespeople who will later become mentors and role models in the construction trades. It’s a wonderful way to link everyone together. Homelessness is everyone’s problem, and through building tiny houses we can create real solutions.”


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Nichols’ work comes at a time when tiny homes are already gaining attention. Since the 2008 recession, housing prices have increased nationwide, and show no signs of slowing. As wages continue to stagnate, people of all ages are putting more thought into downsizing and finding alternatives to traditional living. Baby boomers want to retire and travel, and millennials are seeking alternatives to the traditional two-story colonial with a 30-year mortgage. Tiny houses, typically under 400 square feet, often mobile, and anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 or more, are an affordable way to cut back, get out of town, and live in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner.


But, at the other end of the spectrum, the tiny houses LIHI builds for the homeless have tiny prices–a basic structure costs just $2,500. And, more importantly, they are not subject to the same strict planning and zoning regulations that cover traditional housing in most cities. “A traditional low-income housing project takes at least 2 or 3 years of planning and financing. On the other hand, you can build a village of tiny homes in a weekend,” says Nichols. To her and many others, the benefits are clear: tiny houses are an ideal way to get homeless people off the street and on their way to some form of more permanent housing.


Tiny house builds are accessible to people of all ages and all skill levels, and the opportunities aren’t just for women. One of Nichols’ pre-apprentice partners is YouthBuild in South Seattle. The volunteers, youth between the ages of 12 and 24 with a history of homelessness, work on every aspect of the project. From planning and engineering, to carpentry and wiring, to painting and decorating the houses for move-in, the YouthBuild participants play a leading role. They learn new skills, earn certifications, and find ways into pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships, all while doing something meaningful for their community. In fact, many of the youth participants find the greatest reward is the opportunity to give back to the community, instead of asking for help.


Female volunteers and tradeswomen designed and built Whittier Heights, an all-female tiny house village that opened in 2018. Most participants had never seen a construction project staffed entirely by women; the build generated so much enthusiasm that even the local carpenters union sent women to take part. Instead of fighting to work on an equal level with men, to be heard and feel respected, the women at the build created an environment of sharing and respect. They encouraged each other to learn and grow, and to develop beyond the bounds of the project. According to Nichols, “Whittier Heights engaged so many women who are now interested in becoming apprentices and building more tiny homes. The union provided support and services for the project, and now they have several enthusiastic new members who are just starting down the road to wonderful careers.”


Nichols described one woman who came to the Whittier Heights build after 12 years in the military. She was struggling to make her way in civilian life, but at Whittier Heights she discovered a natural talent for wiring. With the encouragement she received from others on the project, and with help from connections she made at the build, she contacted the electricians union and began the process of applying for an apprenticeship. Other volunteers from the build gave her advice about what to wear and how to communicate in an interview, and she passed her union assessment with a near-perfect score. Less than six months after finishing the Whittier Heights project, the woman started an electrician’s apprenticeship and is on her way to a high-paying career.

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The homeless and job seekers are not the only ones to benefit from the community that forms around a tiny house village; builds have a positive impact on everyone involved. Volunteers who have never faced housing insecurity learn to have more compassion for the homeless; instead of driving by tent villages and judging the residents, they can connect with other members of the team. As everyone works together, people see that homeless people are still human. They may be down on their luck, they might have made poor choices, but they are people in need of support. As Nichols sees it, “when you do tiny house builds with the homeless community, you learn to have compassion and understanding. You connect with the homeless individuals on a personal level, and making that connection makes you a better person.”


Tiny houses are not a perfect solution to homelessness; Nichols is realistic about the limitations of tiny homes and understands the criticism lobbed at her projects. But, she sees it as an emergency response to a severe housing problem, and believes it is important work. “Nobody will pretend that having an 8’x12’ house with no bathroom, no running water, no heat, is an ideal response to homelessness. But, it's an emergency response. It gets people out from under a bridge and into a safe, warm place until they move into permanent housing. Even if we only help one person at a time, as long as we step out there and do something, we can make a difference in the reality of life for a lot of folks.”

And, overall, Nichols feel the benefits of all the work far outweigh the concerns raised by critics: “I think it's a magical project. It helps people who need help. It gives people skills and confidence. It helps people look for potential career choices in a way that's meaningful. We've elevated construction practice to something that is so tied in with community building, it's almost unbelievable. The state of Washington already has a positive apprenticeship community, committed to helping women and people of color get into the construction industry and into apprenticeships. When you combine those values with a desire to help the homeless, you see a project that is fitting for Washington state. We want to be a state that focuses on a better future for all residents. This is a great example of how we can do it.”

Megan Quint