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The Tiny-House Village That Started a Movement

It was one of the first homeless tent camps in the nation to transition into a community of tiny houses. Three years later, residents at Quixote Village say being a part of a community has given them a new lease on life.

June 28, 2017

Tucked into an industrial complex a few miles from Washington state’s capitol building in Olympia is a ring of 30 tiny houses, each 144 square feet, about the size of a small U-Haul trailer.

This collection of well-tended dwellings is Quixote Village. Opened on Christmas Eve, 2013, it was an early experiment in using miniature homes to house the homeless, a model that has since been copied around the country.

While few see tiny houses as a cure for an epidemic of homelessness that has plagued West Coast cities, for the residents of Quixote Village, these dwellings have been a godsend.

“It’s been a new lease on life,” says Byron Thorpe, one of the community’s original residents. “It was something I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance at again. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been alive these last two or three years.”

Each house is equipped with a toilet, a bed, a sink and a front porch facing out on the the shared green space, which is dotted with trees and flowers. A nearby community center holds a large shared kitchen and showers, and a separate space for watching television, holding meetings or participating in the weekly yoga class.

“It helps them to be independent and adds dignity back to their lives,” says Raul Salazar, the program manager at Quixote Village. “We’re giving them a life that is more traditional and normal, compared to always having to rely on someone else for the basic human needs in life.”

Quixote Village also takes an innovative approach to treating addiction. While many shelters and transitional housing services evict residents for using drugs, Quixote Village provides a safe and steady home to help them on the path to recovery.

“We fully understand that addiction isn’t something that somebody just gets over, overnight,” Salazar says. “We understand that somebody could be clean and sober for three years and then one day have a relapse. Does that person have to lose their house because of it? No.”

For resident Jimi Christensen, Quixote Village became a respite from a life on the streets where he often faced temptation to return to his old ways. “When I first got here I was still addicted, still kind of hopeless at that point,” Christensen says as he played guitar on his tiny house’s front porch. “A place to lay my head at night and store my groceries is all I needed to get a jumpstart on life.”

Today, Christensen says he’s clean of alcohol and hard drugs. He is also attending life enrichment courses at Peace Center in nearby Lacey, Washington, to work on his leadership skills and look toward the future. He wants to become a teacher someday.

Since its start in December of 2013, Quixote has served a total of 61 people, including 41 men and 20 women. Panza, the nonprofit organization that runs Quixote Village, requests that residents contribute 30 percent of their monthly income, but will not evict or turn people away who are out of work or disabled.

Quixote has received a lot of attention from around the region, says Jaycie Osterberg, resident advocate and case manager at Quixote Village. “We are constantly being asked by other groups how we run our organization.”

As a result, Panza plans to open two other villages in nearby Pierce and Mason counties.

With 5,485 homeless people currently living in King County, tiny house villages seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket. But they’re having a real impact, according to Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which has built five tiny-house villages across Seattle-area neighborhoods.

“Our tiny house villages serve 300-400 people at any given time, but we touch the lives of 1,000 or more people over the course of a year,” Lee says. “We’re saving people everyday from the prospect of dying on the streets from exposure, violence and other issues.”

In addition to simple shelter, these miniature developments demonstrate the power of living in a community that understands and cares. 

“The people here are what makes it a good place to live,” says Heather Ristow, who moved into Quixote Village about a year ago after living in her van.

Ristow, Byron Thorpe, and Jimi Christensen gathered on a recent evening with Raul Salazar and Jaycie Osterberg for a Village Life Committee meeting, where they made plans for the Quixote Village’s social events and discussed community issues. They talked about making a trip to Mt. Rainier National Park and a Mariner’s baseball game.

While Ristow enjoys the company, she doesn’t think she’ll be here long. She is hoping to find Section 8 housing that would allow her a private apartment with a self-contained shower and kitchen where she and her small therapy dog could live.
Thorpe, on the other hand, is here to stay. “I jokingly told them that I’m never going to leave,” he says. “There’s an oak tree right outside that we planted. You can spread my ashes there, I told them. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s good.”


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Matt Mills McKnight

Matt Mills McKnight is a visual storyteller and journalist who covers a variety of political, social and environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys finding stories in his own South Seattle neighborhood, as well as researching projects throughout the rest of the city and region that he believes will inspire thought and discussion among viewers. Matt joined the KCTS 9 team in December, 2016. Previously he was a photo editor at MSN News and a freelance photojournalist covering many of the region's major news stories for a variety of news organizations.

More stories by Matt Mills McKnight

Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, the PBS NewsHour, and she is a 2-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts and Human Interest.

More stories by Aileen Imperial

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What an incredibly beautiful story about the essentialness of shelter and connection to overcoming personal demons.Food and shelter and  human connection. It's a beautiful thing. We all deserve to have at least that. Thank you for telling this story so powerfully.

I elected not to be a part of the interviews, as I deal with PTSD issues and have a few reservations about spending too much time around others... I live in #3 (in the video it is towards the end, with the Seahawks curtain and the cat (Mollydactyl, my companion animal, and best friend in the universe! lol) I did want to say there is much  more to the story of how Quixote Village came into being, but mainly what was focused on was the worth of the village and how it helps. We are thankful that people took notice of a very long journey to get to where it is. I am lucky enough to have been granted SSI and found out that I have needed it longer than I thought. with that, I am to receive back pay and ave decided to use that as a way to buy a small piece of land and build eco friendly earthen homes. either with reclaimed plastic bottles and cob, or strawbale or maybe earthbag. However, I feel like I should build an extra room or 2 on when i get to that point, so that I can help someone else get off the streets possibly. So, basically I want to open my home, when I make it, to help someone else, or a rotation of someone else's. Anyway, I just wanted to thank the journalists and team for their interest. And if you want to know how the tent city began and the reason it got to the point of Quioxte Village, find me on facebook and I will be happy to tell you how, with the help of Bread and Roses combined with a group of us homeless people that banded together to form the PPU (poor people's union) and developed an idea for long term living as a community. I hope your article inspires others to take a risk and maker something in their communities, not out of charity, but out of love of fellow humans!

Thank you so much for telling our story so beautifully! We hope this article and video will reach out to those who feel there is no hope left and to those in our community who are wanting to help support our village and future villages. Thank you. It means the world to us to be recognized!

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