Santosha Village in New Orleans: Tiny Living, Big Opportunities

When Mary Barrett’s husband, a mechanic, died in 2010, she tried working the counter at Taco Bell in Jackson, Miss., but couldn’t earn enough to make rent. So, she packed her bags to go live with a relative in Houston; then her aunt died. Moving to New Orleans, she stayed overnight in shelters, but men constantly hit on her. She’s been living under the Claiborne overpass ever since. “Everybody deserves a place to live, don’t they?” she asked. In theory, shelter is a basic need almost everyone agrees is just, but substantial disagreement arises when discussing practical solutions. At least 1,000 people are currently without housing in New Orleans, a substantial decline from a decade ago, but transitional housing is insufficient to meet the need. A group of Good Samaritans recently came together to envison a new approach, establishing a healing community with 20 small houses located in a lush, green setting with activities and amenities to build a support network, foster a sense of home and get people back on their feet. (Contrary to popular belief, most homeless want a permanent place to live. ) The group found affordable land in New Orleans East off Chef Menteur Highway with easy access to public transportation to build Santosha Village where formerly unhoused people might create a more meaningful life, not just find short-term shelter. As volunteers began clearing brush on the lot, however, residents of the Plum Orchard subdivision started clamoring:  Not in my back yard. The model for Santosha (in Sanskrit, “complete contentment”) is Opportunity Village in Eugene, Ore., which was launched in 2013 with $98,000 in private cash donations and grants plus donated materials and volunteer labor. The village has supported more than 100 individuals and couples transitioning to permanent housing and sometimes jobs with a per night cost of $5.
Volunteers clearing the acre
According to The National Coalition for Homeless, two trends are increasing homelessness:  a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and an increase in poverty. A recent study showed that approximately 63% of Americans have no emergency savings to cover an unexpected $500 expense. Haiyan Khan, a slender, soft-spoken, former software engineer who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to gut houses, is the force behind Santosha Village. Khan volunteered for eight years with Father Desmond Crotty, helping to cook Saturday dinners for homeless people. As he became acquainted with so many individuals down on their luck, he started researching sustainable housing options to counter the tide of rising rental rates, and built a tiny house on wheels he named “Blessing” to turn over to a homeless person. With a group of volunteers, Khan continued building three more tiny houses while considering creating a whole village. To better explain the mission of Santosha to local residents, a weeknight meet and greet at Livingston Collegiate Academy was organized. With about 20 locals and 15 Santosha volunteers, sitting in a circle to view a Powerpoint presentation, Khan attempted to present the rationale behind a self-sustaining, micro-housing community that would include vegetable gardens, farmers market, community kitchen, computer lab, yoga studio and other amenities that could be shared with Plum Orchard homeowners. But before he could advance the first slide, a man stood up and interrupted, saying he was diametrically opposed to the village. He and a few others were not interested in learning more about the project. They already knew enough. “There are ways to meet the needs of the homeless without encroaching on this neighborhood,” a woman said. “If you would build a two-bedroom, two-bath house, that would be acceptable,” another person remarked. Residents believed too many people would be living on one acre, misunderstanding that community living provided the support system that was necessary and enable people to live for $60 a month. In addition to standard amenities, the village would include an integrated wellness program, including yoga and meditation, along with conventional medical and mental health services to help people heal emotionally and physically. Plum Orchard residents were suspicious of the communal kitchen, showers and workshop. One of Santosha’s volunteers pointed out that religious groups have traditionally lived in communal spaces. “We want to bypass conventional thinking,” Khan explained. “Our fundamental structure is flawed. You should own, but own sustainably.” “Going tiny is not about square-footage as much as its about freedom. If a house costs $15,000, it’s a game-changer.” At $300 per month, you can own a $15,000 house in five years; at $150 per month, you can own in 10 years and take it wherever you want to go. “Then, your chances of becoming homeless are very small,” he noted. A couple of homeowners worried that village residents might be “rapists” and “drug dealers,” a common misconception about unhoused individuals, but Kahn explained that every resident would be thoroughly vetted and subject to a 30-day probation period. A survey by Opportunity Village showed that neighboring businesses and residents experienced few or no negative impacts as a result of their close proximity to the village. After two years, 90% of neighbors were fully supportive of Opportunity Village. Some meeting attendees had the impression Khan is a for-profit developer. “Haiyan is doing this because it is an injustice,” Vicki Judice told the group. One of the advocates for the project, Judice is executive director of the Harry Tompson Center, which provides services to homeless people. There is an insufficient number of emergency shelters in New Orleans and few emotional supports, she noted. Khan has been leading emotional wellness sessions on Fridays at the Tompson Center. “I’m not going to let the value of my house go down,” another homeowner announced. In fact, a 2007 report for Project H.O.M.E. – a nonprofit with transitional housing sites in Philadelphia suggests that adjacent property values have improved over time. “Would you be concerned if this showed up in your neighborhood?” a woman countered. Khan actually built the first tiny house in the driveway of his family’s townhouse in Central City. A portable, mini-house on wheels, it was furnished with a futon, solar panel, composting toilet, 20-gallon rainwater shower, electric clothes washer, and storage closet for about $1,500. Another woman suggested an empty building that would be better for a homeless shelter. Khan explained Santosha would not be a shelter. “Santosha Village is a beautiful, healing village that carefully selects those who are ready to create change in their lives, heal and be in a supportive, nurturing environment,” to which one person replied they could go to Ctiy Park for nature. Somebody else reacted she would feel unsafe with her children, but Khan joked that before long, she too would be volunteering alongside them. To reassure residents, Khan suggested that a binding community-benefits contract be drawn up, giving homeowners the power to shut down the village if systemic problems arose, but he already has the right to build anything he chooses. Homeowners really can’t control what any neighbor wants to do with his property, if he wants to add a garage or paint the house purple. The meeting ended abruptly when several people walked out and time was up. Unable to complete his presentation, Khan was still optimistic neighbors would come around. He is planning a community dinner and “Dreaming in Color” dialogue to help visualize the project “By realizing the idea of a village, which is an empowered commuity that has access to affordable and sustainable housing and wellness along with micro business opportunities, we hope to create a lifestyle that is well balanced and provides true refuge. It is an opportunity for us to incorporate the wisdom of the age-old village along with the leanings of the new times in a way that finally serves us,” said Khan who earned an MBA from Northwestern University. One of Khan’s original tiny houses, named “Hope,” has been parked for a little over a year next to the Harry Tompson Center. Five people have lived there for different periods of time, including David Johnson. “Living there gives you peace of mind, knowing you could close your eyes and sleep safely and be well rested,” he said. Now, David has transitioned to permanent housing at the Christopher Inn off Frenchmen Street. He’s serves on the volunteer work crew, clearing the land for Santosha.
David Johnson, volunteer and former occupant of “Hope,” one of the mobile tiny houses, now parked at the Harry Tompson Center.
“I see it as another type of temporary shelter that gives more dignity to people,” Judice said. “They can decide when they go in and out, and it allows them to be in charge.” At shelters, people must conform to rigid rules, eat and sleep at specific times, and must leave very early in the morning. Khan began researching micro-housing communities through the national nonprofit, The Village Collaborative. “The village model evolved from democratic tent cities organized by the unhoused, which demonstrated an alternative to traditional reponses to poverty and homelessness; one that preserves a greater degree of individual autonomy and dignity within a community setting,” the collaborative’s website states. Some of the most successful urban villages are located in in Austin, Texas; Portland and Eugene, Ore., Olympia and Seattle, Wash., Ventura, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., and Madison, Wis. Twenty more are in the planning stages. Opportunity Village evolved out of public concern about homelessness, resulting in the mayor’s appointment of a task force to identify “new and innovative” approaches to the issue. Eugene’s City Council authorized the city manager to launch a pilot project. Opportunity Village’s 30 micro-homes range from 60-80 square feet in size and are supported by common cooking, gathering, restroom and laundry facilities. The village is self-managed by residents with oversight by a nonprofit, SquareOne Villages. “Village is how we have lived for thousands of years, with a lot of interaction, shared values, yet keeping our independence,” said Khan who as a boy accompanied his physician father on trips to Pakistan villages to vaccinate people without medical services. Tiny living is not just a sensible solution for unhoused people; it is a model for senior citizens, college students, minimum-wage workers, artists and others living on limited incomes to have safe, independent, affordable housing to follow their passions. “The way the United States is going is not sustainable.” With a tiny house, “you’ve taken back the power. [The house] serves you; you don’t serve it,” Khan said. The Bayou Brief is a non-profit news publication that relies 100% on donations from our readers. Help support independent journalism about the stories of Louisiana through a monthly or one-time donation by clicking here.