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Prefab Shelter Units Considered For Area Homeless

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Individuals attending the Opening Doors Northwest Florida general coalition meeting get a look at tiny prefab homes that could be used to provide temporary shelter for local people who are homeless.

Local advocates are looking into a new shelter option for individuals who are homeless. The units are small, easy to produce and assemble, and offer a dignified, short-term housing solution.

“This is our 64 square-foot unit, so you can sleep up to two people in here, said Ben Simons, a community development partner for Pallet, the company based in Everett, Washington that builds the units.

He pulls back bedding on the wall-mounted bunk to highlight its mattress, which is mold-and-mildew-resistant and easy to clean.

“This is the second bunk that’s folded up into the wall right now, just to give you a bit more space. And, as you can see, this back panel would not have this panel here, it would actually be an AC unit, which we can see in the other unit. All these shelters come with a smoke detector, fire extinguisher; there’s an egress door in the bottom of the unit in case that’s necessary.”

Additionally, this unit, which is approximately 8 feet long and 8 feet wide, has openable, lockable, screened windows.

“This is great for an individual, great for a couple, two people that are really comfortable being in the same space. It takes about half an hour each to set up and we can fit 30 of them on a truck.”

Simons describes Pallet as a social purpose company whose goals include ending unsheltered homelessness and developing a non-traditional workforce.

“Basically, these units were actually designed by people with lived experience with homelessness. They said, ‘Hey, this is what I would have needed when I was living on the streets to get off the streets, feel safe.’”

According to Simons, Pallet is a scalable, repeatable solution that has about 40 communities around the country, mainly on the west coast. But, new communities are planned in such areas as Kansas City, Missouri and Norfolk, Virginia. While confirming no one solution fits all, he believes they offer a viable option.

“Giving someone the ability to lock their belongings in there during the day, being able to lock themselves in at night while they’re sleeping, having climate control really does allow folks to stabilize,” declared Simons. “It allows them to go out and apply for a job without worrying about their belongings being stolen.”

The Pallet shelters, or tiny homes, are made of highly durable aluminum and composite materials, built to withstand 170 mph winds, important for this area.

The 8 x 8 costs about $9,500 - shipped and assembled on site. Alongside is a larger 8 x 14, four-person unit that costs about $13,000, and a small, two-stall bathroom unit that runs about $39,000.

“I think it’s a very interesting concept, very interesting. I’m pleased that they brought them here so we could see them in person,” said Marcie Whitaker, a member of the board for Opening Doors Northwest Florida.

The continuum of care serving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties held its monthly coalition meeting at the Salvation Army where a couple of the units were available for viewing.

“Really what’s impressing me is that they can be climate-controlled because for our climate, it’s important to be able to get cooled,” she said, noting the area’s hot summer weather.

“Fairly decent (accommodations), I mean if you compare this to a tent, it’s better than a tent.”

“What I’m seeing here today is very great,” said Delarian Wiggins, a Pensacola City councilman who attended in his capacity as a neighborhood specialist for the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. “I think it’s a push toward a proactive movement to try to help secure the homeless in a place that’s safe.”

It’s individuals like Wiggins that Opening Doors Executive Director John Johnson was trying to reach, “So, today was really about planting a seed in this community.”

For the past several months, Opening Doors has been working to address the needs of homeless campers under the I-110 overpass. Johnson says he invited Pallet to Pensacola to show their tiny home units and to show community leaders what’s possible.

“It could be an immediate option in our community to sway some of the blight of homelessness that we see on the street and put them in a more dignified structure,” he declared with a hint of hopefulness. Additionally, he pointed out that in a community setting case management and other resources can be delivered on site.

“And, I think because of the way they look and the design and the appeal, it’s more inviting for, we wouldn’t have the “not in my back yard” kind of issue.”

But, in order to move forward with Pallet to establish an emergency shelter community in the Pensacola area, it will take buy-in from local government. Specifically, Johnson points to three areas of need.

“We need to have a location, that’s one. We need to have that county/city will, where we can deal with ordinances, that’s two. And, then number three is the resources to pay for them,” he said.

When it comes to funding, Johnson is optimistic about being able to generate what’s needed.

“The county is getting money. The city is getting money. We’re arousing business interest. We’ve formed a task force and so the task force is working on things. This is the best time to do something on this.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.