In St. Pete, Florida, diminutive houses are serving as a path back to society for both ex-felons and homeless vets

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It’s a typical summer morning in Saint Petersburg, Florida—sunny, muggy and hot. Five men crowd into the foyer of a mother-in-law suite behind a halfway house in South Saint Pete, measuring and fastening corner pieces to a door frame. Upstairs, five other workers tape and mud drywall. Sweat beads at their brows. Their shirts are dirtied and drenched after toiling for three hours with no A/C.

Ask any of these guys and they’ll say they’re lucky to be here. Not long ago they were incarcerated, convicted on weapons, assault, burglary, and drug charges. As part of the Pinellas Ex-offender Reentry Coalition Second Chances Tiny Homes program, they’re now taught construction skills and paid a modest wage to apply that training on site, working with groups like Habitat for Humanity to build homes for people in need.

It’s tough to live as an ex-felon in Florida, where homecomings bring a host of new challenges. Background checks tend to deter potential employers. Jim Crow-era laws prevent 1.5 million ex-felons from voting in the state. And the very act of assimilating as a second-class citizen in an unfamiliar society can cause a Sisyphean cycle of incarceration.

Meanwhile, Pinellas County needs more affordable homes. The county has the second highest homeless population in Florida, and ranks in the top 10 in four categories for mid-sized counties around the country. In their annual report, the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board found 2,829 homeless people living in the county, 281 of whom were vets. Across the nation, some 554,000 people and 40,000 veterans are homeless on a given night.

The Second Chances program aims to kill two birds with one stone: Help ex-felons transition back into society and provide housing for the homeless. Thanks to a recent partnership with the City of Saint Pete and a $1.25 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a handful of ex-felons and at-risk young adults are getting the opportunity to gain skills and compete in the job market, while rebuilding communities they once blighted by their actions.

Meet the Class

At 40 years old, Keith Jackson has spent more than half his life behind bars. Stocky with a shaved head and thick beard, Jackson struggled to adjust after going to prison on a series of convictions stemming from assault and robbery charges. He moved from New Jersey to Florida to start fresh two years ago, but it wasn’t until he joined the Second Chances program in May that he says he found a foundation.

“I needed this type of support,” he says. “We have people here to back us up and help us get the kind of jobs we desire. That’s big.” Jackson credits the program with teaching him to see his own potential, approach his work with confidence and recognize the role of reciprocity. “When you’re here, you’re not alone anymore. It’s not just about carpentry. It’s about life.”

Older guys like Jackson help mentor younger students like Stanley Melus, a 23-year-old from Tampa, who’s part of the program’s Cohort of Champions, comprised of young adults with criminal records. Chatty and self-reflective, Melus was raised by a single mother as the eldest of three brothers. He dropped out after a brief stint at college and floated around the state. He finally feels anchored in Saint Pete.

“I had no foundation back at home and camaraderie was nonexistent,” Melus says. “I found that with these guys. We’re like a brotherhood. Things that I lack, they’re strong at. And things they’re weak at, I might be good at. We build each other up like that.”

Beyond the bond of brotherhood, students earn a handful of construction certifications and get hands-on training through the program, splitting time between worksites and the classroom at the local technical college. First launched last November, the four-month program aims to give students a leg up into the job market. And it seems to work. Thirteen initial graduates found immediate employment, according to a spokesperson for the program. The 14 current students hope to have similar luck. But, while Jackson is quick to pull out his laminated forklift operator card, it’s the intangible lessons that resonate most.

“Walk before you run,” is one of the program’s adages, repeated by the students like mantras. “Be a beacon of change” is another.

“It’s important to have the opportunity to work with these younger guys and set them straight,” Jackson says. “We’ve all struggled. We come from similar struggles and have dealt with a lot of the same hurdles in life. But this gives us an opportunity to become employable, and to get some life experience. I can’t be selfish about it. I need to be a beacon of change for those still out there struggling on the streets. This thing works, and they can have it. It’s attainable.”

Thirteen initial graduates found immediate employment after going through the tiny homes program. Dyllan Furness

Tiny Homes Against Homelessness

From a certain distance, the Second Chances tiny home design looks like any other house. There’s a kitchen, bathroom, workstation and a loft for sleeping. One model even includes a covered front porch and A-frame ceiling. But at 350 square feet, the architects pack a lot into a small package.

If HGTV is a gauge for America’s domestic trends, then smaller spaces are catching on. Shows like Tiny House, Big Living and Tiny House Hunters depict homeowners of all ages—from boomers to millennials—happily downsizing their lives into structures measuring 500-square-feet or smaller. For many in the movement, the less-is-more lifestyle is a choice—fewer things means more freedom—with people investing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars into their tiny homes. For people who can’t find housing to begin with, minimalism is more about affordability.

“Affordable housing is sorely needed in our community,” says Susan Myers, CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, noting Pinellas County’s high homeless population.

The very act of assimilating as a second-class citizen in an unfamiliar society can cause a Sisyphean cycle of incarceration.

“Tiny homes are much more affordable to construct and therefore can be a more affordable product to deliver,” says Rob Gerbes, the administrator for neighborhood affairs in Saint Pete. The city is considering zoning reforms that would allow “tiny home clusters or villages,” Gerbes adds, “so you can get some economy of scale on site to increase the affordability.” A number of organizations around Tampa Bay, including the Pinellas Ex-offender Reentry Coalition and Celebrate Outreach, have received support from local governments to address housing demands through tiny home communities.

Josué Robles Caraballo, a professor of architecture at the University of South Florida who researches tiny homes, says they offer a soft introduction into homeownership for people struggling with homelessness.

“If this is for someone who is not used to being a homeowner, the benefit of having a small home is that they don’t experience a tremendous burden right away,” he says. In that way homeownership becomes tangible and manageable. In prior work with veterans, Robles Caraballo found that vets take comfort in the control over their environment allotted by tiny homes.

And there are ways to live well in this limited space, says Pat Dunham, a professional “tiny house advisor” who shares 230 square feet with her husband and dog. “There’s nuance to making use of every fraction of an inch of space.”

The Pinellas Ex-offender Reentry Coalition hopes to build more than two dozen tiny homes for homeless vets by the end of the year. A spokesperson said how the VA will place residents and what rent they’ll be expected to pay have yet to be worked out. In the meantime, students have been practicing on models at the local community college, an experience Stanley Melus says has inspired him to downsize later in life.

“Building this stuff makes me want to be a minimalist,” he says. “I can see myself living comfortably, small.”