The tiny home trend becomes the housing answer for some foster youth in West Virginia
By Christie Renick
Nestled among the rolling hills and winding creeks of West Virginia, not far from the Kentucky state line, is a cluster of red and white structures, remnants of the property’s history as a working farm: a converted barn, outbuildings, a cottage.
Soon, the scene will also include a modern touch — tiny houses where teenagers will learn independence. Or maybe interdependence is a better term, given the project’s commitment to integrating the surrounding community of Wayne County into the lives of the young people living on its grounds.
Stepping Stones is a 44-year-old organization providing therapeutic residential care primarily to boys ages 12 to 17 who can’t live at home with their families for various reasons. After 38 years of working with the boys and seeing the various challenges they faced once they turned 18, Executive Director Susan Fry and her staff felt like they were banging their heads against a wall, trying to figure out where they were falling short in preparing their boys for life outside the 166-acre campus.
“We decided the missing piece was the community. So the anchor to the Youth Transitions Project is that we’re bringing community to them,” Fry said. “Before they turn 18 they are already linked, they already have caring adults in their lives so that when they move out to the community, it’s not going to be among strangers.”
While Wayne County’s residents may have known broadly what Stepping Stones was about, they weren’t involved with the boys’ lives unless they happened to be teachers at the local high school, or staff at the residential facility.
The average age of a boy who comes to Stepping Stones is 16; his biological family may have broken down or he might have lost his parents to drug addiction (West Virginia is often referred to as the heart of the opioid epidemic). He may have a history of complex trauma and a host of behavioral challenges that make it difficult for him to function in school, make friends or trust adults.
While boys like this might succeed in the structured setting on campus with supportive staff to help navigate those challenges, life in the real world is quite different. And without dedicated staff, or family, many young people who transition out of foster care are set adrift with no real support system.
So Stepping Stones made the strategic decision to not only intentionally broker connections with people in the community but to offer housing, with very few strings attached, so that a handful of 17-year-olds would have a better shot of transitioning into adulthood successfully if they chose to leave the program when they turn 18.
“There’s too many strings attached — they’ve had those strings their whole life and they don’t want that anymore, and I don’t blame them,” Fry said, describing the experience of many young people transitioning out of foster care.
In some ways, getting the community involved was simple. All Stepping Stones had to do was extend the invitation.
“We realized the community just didn’t know our boys, but it’s really been a blessing for our kids,” Fry said. “People want to help, they just need to know how. The excitement and enthusiasm has been wonderful.”
So far, community participation has come in the form of donated holiday meals, volunteer yoga instruction and help with the materials, design and construction of the tiny homes.
Even local high school students and prison inmates have found ways to get involved. The area’s three rival high schools are all participating, whether through engineering and design or construction — a process that’s teaching students more about who the youth are at Stepping Stones and why they might need a little extra support.
For Nicholas Napier, now 19, what started out as a class project his junior year at Wayne High School became a cause he cares about.
“There had been a few people who came to the high school that came from [Stepping Stones],” Napier said. “But I didn’t know too much about it, I just knew it was a home for people in need, who had families with addiction issues, things like that.”
Napier and three of his classmates were selected to direct the tiny homes project at their school, which meant weighing in on designs, attending meetings and collaborating with other project partners.
“I wanted to help out the community, that was the main thing,” Napier said. “I tried to learn from Stepping Stones … because it’s a business so I was trying to learn what I could do to improve my future, and theirs as well.”
Today he hopes to continue to find ways to support the project as the tiny homes village grows. Napier attended the groundbreaking for the 1,200-square-foot greenhouse and hydroponic garden that’s part of Stepping Stones’ independence program. Through the greenhouse, youth will have the opportunity to get an agricultural certification while learning hands-on skills related to growing, marketing and selling produce.
Napier hopes to be able to work around his busy schedule — maintaining two jobs and an online degree program for video game animation — to be at the grand opening for the tiny homes in the spring of 2020.
Preparations are ramping up with the first two tiny homes scheduled for delivery in the coming months, and according to Fry there’s already a long list of youth who want to apply for the two homes. But beyond being productive through school, work or volunteering, and living a “legal lifestyle,” as Fry says, youth who have a foster care history don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops to be eligible for a tiny home at Stepping Stones. And they can stay as long as they like.
“We don’t want it to look like the system they just left,” Fry said. Ultimately the goal is to develop a leadership council composed of the young adult residents; the council will run the village and manage each other. Fry and her team anticipate that those living in the tiny homes will organically reach a point in their lives where they want to move out and into the world, opening up space for the next young adult to move in.
Although it had to be modified to fit transition-age youth, Fry and her team looked to Community First! Village, a housing program for chronically homeless adults in Austin, Texas, as a model for their tiny homes project.
Fry’s team’s vision for the village is big. There will be a dozen tiny homes, and they aim to establish multiple vocational programs that will help young people find meaningful careers, like beekeeping, for example. But they will also include or build on some of Stepping Stones’ existing programming, like evidence-based substance abuse treatment, wellness activities like running, yoga and music, and life skills such as budgeting and maintaining one’s living space.
Down the road, Fry hopes to incorporate a transportation line to help residents get to work or school, build food and clothing pantries, fire circles and meeting places all on-site. Once it’s fully operational, Fry estimates it will cost around $250-300,000 per year to run the village.
In the future, Fry plans to write up the Stepping Stones model and distribute it nationally for replication. Her top tips for anyone hoping to build a similar program: make friends with someone who knows construction if you can’t afford to hire a contractor; get someone onboard early on who understands local zoning restrictions; and prioritize finding volunteers with the right skillsets, especially those who can help coordinate throughout the construction process.
“We have always been a closed facility, and we love our community, but the thought of bringing them in was a bit scary. But it’s been the best thing we’ve ever done. Since we’ve started this, we have had so much provided for us,” Fry said.
While much of the start-up funding and materials were donated by local community partners — a major hospital, a national health care company, and an auto manufacturer — long-term Fry hopes to tap into several federal funding streams to support transition-age youth in the program.
Also helpful, West Virginia provides current and former foster youth with housing stipends, and two other state departments chip in to cover education expenses and other aspects of the program. But when it comes to construction costs for the remaining nine homes, Fry and her team will have to depend on traditional fundraising and hope that other businesses and community members will step in as partners.
Ultimately, Fry hopes to see the tiny homes model replicated across the state and nationally for youth transitioning into independence, but cautions that zoning can be one of the biggest barriers. Zoning was not an issue for Stepping Stones because the campus is rural and outside any city limits.
“What needs to happen is that governments need to relax zoning restrictions because tiny homes are being used for veterans and other homeless people, and they are efficient, affordable, and environmentally friendly,” Fry said. “There are too many homeless people and wasted resources to not look at tiny homes as a possible solution.”
Christie Renick is vice president of Fostering Media Connections, the publisher of Fostering Families Today.