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Haiyan Khan and tiny homes: Giving homeless individuals a foothold

Haiyan Khan builds one house at a time in his driveway.

Haiyan Khan builds one house at a time in his driveway.

Providing a tiny house for a homeless person supports the first three chakras, said Haiyan Khan, who has so far built and given away three mobile shelters. (For a non-yogi, those most basic chakras help individuals feel secure, experience self-esteem and balance their emotions.)

Haiyan Khan became interested in the concept of sustainability when he volunteered to feed homeless people after Hurricane Katrina. For one thing, he learned that transitional housing in New Orleans is insufficient to meet the need. Individuals are only allowed to stay at most shelters for 21 days or less, while it normally takes much longer to find a job and be able to afford permanent housing.

“Homeless people are constantly in survival mode,” he says.

Khan started hearing about the Tiny House Movement and efforts in other cities like Oakland, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; Madison, Wis.; Ithaca, NY; Olympia, Wa., Seattle and Los Angeles, where nonprofits are constructing small houses for their homeless populations. Coincidentally, people around the world, regardless of income, are choosing to live more simply in houses that measure anywhere from 65 to 400 square feet.

Essentially, the technology now exists to live a “fairly good lifestyle for very little expense,” says Khan, who personally feels he enjoys more comforts than he needs. Even college students or recent grads could live in tiny houses to economize.

“We’ve just been told that we have to live this way,” says Khan, a yoga instructor, referring to the large space mentality, which is not available to all.

Searching for a possible solution, Khan researched on the Internet and attended a workshop last year in Austin, Texas, to learn how to build a house the size of a car that can be pushed by a single person. Although he studied engineering, the former information technology director had never before used power tools to build anything. His first construction project, appropriately named “Blessing,” is a portable, mini-house on wheels furnished with futon, solar power, composting toilet, 20-gallon rainwater shower, electric clothes washer, and storage closet - built for about $1,500. He constructed a prototype without knowing who might receive it.

Tiny houses are the size of a car, but have all the essentials for living.

Tiny houses are the size of a car, but have all the essentials for living.

“Identifying the person for the first shelter was the trickiest. For many days I tried to figure out who would be the best person and how I might find them. Now, I had a shelter but no one to give it to,” he says.

Walking down St. Charles Avenue one afternoon, he began speaking with Pope, a former machinist who had been living on the street about seven months. The next day, Khan brought the shelter to the place where he had seen Pope asking motorists for help. Khan explained that he had a surprise, inviting him to come take a look.

“There was utter disbelief.”

It took a few minutes for Pope to process what was happening.

“I remember my friend telling me that Pope had gotten into her car, mumbling that he couldn’t believe he was no longer homeless,” he says.

That night, Pope slept 24 hours straight. In the next couple of months, he helped Khan design an improved model of “Faith,” with a toilet, shower and futon bed. Pope has permanent housing now, so “Blessing” can be recycled and given to someone else.

“Homeless people need shelter and some food to find a pathway to get out,” Khan says.

Each homebuilding project has taken 60 to 100 hours, depending on the number of friends stopping by to help. Khan launched a Kickstarter campaign and Home Depot donated plywood.

Thinking beyond one house at a time, Khan envisions an entire community with a day center so homeless people won’t need to linger at the Greyhound Station or libraries during the day.

“Ideally, the day center would pay for itself,” he says, considering laundry or lawn care businesses as possible income generators. Growing micro-greens doesn’t take much space, but sell for a good price, for example. The concept of a free center may sound impossible in our capitalist society, but Khan has run a thriving donation-only yoga studio for more than five years.

“Humankind has come so far. We put a person on the moon, and we have technology like computers and the Internet. We are creating conditions for a healthy and wealthy lifestyle, but many people still lack the basics. Both here in the U.S. and worldwide many people live paycheck to paycheck, and worry about how they are going to feed their families,” Khan says.

“The good news is that we have the technology so it is possible to live simply for $30-50 per month. Furthermore, we have the resources to take care of our planet and the environment,” he adds. Solar energy, water catchment, composting toilets and growing our own food in small spaces like vertical walls can allow us to live in a more sustainable way and not be so tied to our jobs.

“I feel today all of this is possible. We just have to bring it into practice. As we do, we gain freedom.”

For more information about tiny houses in New Orleans, visit www.neverhomelessagain.weebly.com

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]