A recent essay in another online journal tells a heartwarming story from Kansas City that involves tiny houses. For those of you who do not know what a “tiny house” is, it is simply a house that is very small (obvious enough?) meaning 400 square feet or less. I have written, here, about the “tiny house movement” once before, and I would not take back any of my criticism of people who spend gobs of money on tiny houses so that they can signal their own “minimalist” virtue. That said, this recent tiny house story shows not only how big some people’s hearts can be, but also how new technologies and methods can be used to help bring back old-fashioned, permanent goods like charity and community.
Two truly virtuous sets of people, those at the charity “2×4’s for Hope” and the Veterans Community Project have joined efforts to build a community of tiny houses for homeless veterans. The goal, already partway to completion, is to put up fifty tiny houses for these veterans in one area, around a community outreach center. This is precisely the kind of concrete help building concrete communities that seems to have been lost in the drive for “social justice” in recent decades. It can bring genuine improvements to people’s lives, both in terms of physical well-being and in the possibility of rebuilding genuine communities.
Charity is in a difficult state right now. George Soros and all-too-many other powerful people seem to have decided that they have a right to reshape the world in their own (self-) image because they are rich. The results include massive expenditures aimed at influencing elections through propaganda—excuse me, “public education”—and other more-or-less above-board lobbying efforts. We also have countless “charities” that actually give away very little money. Here one might mention for example The Clinton Foundation and rock singer Bono’s ONE Foundation, both of which, charitably put, spend money on their own public affairs programming.
I am not arguing that public advocacy does not have a place in our public square; it plays a huge role in determining public policies these days. Conservatives, in particular, ignore the fact of lobbying by charity at their peril, because arguing for freedom is a more difficult task than lobbying for government to give away money or “do something” about the crisis du jour. That said, charity means something different from public advocacy. It comes from the Latin caritas which means love and for centuries has been recognized to mean Christian love of one’s fellow man.
Of course, one who loves his fellows would like to see their world at peace or saved from bad public policies of various kinds. But there is something self-centered about spending money, not to directly benefit people, but rather to convince these people that they should adopt one’s own favored public policies. Too many “charities” are attempts to convince people that they should demand free stuff from the government—stuff for which the government will, after all, tax the people to pay.
There is another problem with such vanity foundations: They increasingly seem to be consuming much of the charitable giving on which people with genuine needs once relied. Between government taxation and vanity spending, there seems increasingly little room for neighborly charity. Working people and the middle class can afford to give less, and the rich (or at least the super-rich) seem to be spending all their money on politics or their own vanity projects. Goodness knows charitable foundations that provide concrete assistance do not seem to be overflowing with resources.
Tiny houses seem a brilliant response to this predicament. 2×4’s for Hope simply asks people to “buy” a piece of wood. Purchasers may inscribe a personal message on the wood, which will be used for projects like the one for homeless veterans in Kansas City. One piece at a time, charity can add up to a series of houses. Because the houses are tiny, enough of them can be put together by the good people of the Veterans Community Project to make a real difference in homeless veterans’ lives.
Economic efficiency truly can be an aid to increasing charitable giving, the impact of such giving, and the self-sufficiency of people in need. What is more, it seems clear that tiny houses are an excellent solution for veterans who have become homeless. A tiny house can provide, not just a roof over one’s head, but a roof that can be one’s own, with the necessities of home, but without the square footage and accoutrements that can make a home a very big job (perhaps too big a job for some) to maintain.
Finally, the idea of building, not just a house here and there, but a connected community of houses is an idea whose time has always been with us, but which has been lost in recent decades. Ever since the 1970s there has been a drive, especially from the federal government, to make anything and everything “diverse.” Half-way houses for recovering addicts, homes for orphans and other children whose families cannot care for them, and various other “group homes” have been set in the middle of neighborhoods where there is no history, knowledge, or infrastructure of support. The expectation has been that people will magically get over natural fears and welcome newcomers with whom they have little in common.
Supporters of these kinds of arrangements persistently point to the failings of those being told they will have them in their area. One wonders how much thought they have given to the recovering addicts, troubled children, and others being told to simply “be yourself” among people very unlike them. All the lecturing in the world about inclusiveness cannot make up for the lack of a foundation of commonality for building decent lives. Understandable concern over racial segregation too often has led to abandonment of close-knit communities from boys’ towns to facilities for people with handicaps of various kinds, to, well, veterans.
We can do better. And some of us still are doing better. As an example, the Servants of Charity is an order of priests and brothers who have been caring for the needs of special people for over a century. Their Saint Louis Center in Chelsea, Michigan, is a beautiful campus that serves both adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is not some faceless institution. Neither is it a mere pocket of people placed in the middle of a neighborhood of strangers. It is a community providing both residential care and life-skills training. People with shared experiences and needs are brought together, not to cordon them off from the rest of society, but to help them develop skills for entering that society where possible, and to experience a society of love whether they can enter the wider world or not.
The commonality of background and experience is a necessary component of community, and especially of support for those overcoming great difficulties. Veterans are not all alike. Veterans who have found themselves homeless are not all alike. But they share enough background, experience, and challenge that it makes sense to bring them together into a meaningful community. One hopes that the budding tiny house community in Kansas City will show the way for other meaningful charitable acts.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.