A community-first response to homelessness

New state law outlines a blueprint for sacred settlements

New state law outlines a blueprint for sacred settlements

Along a hillside just off Wheelock Parkway in St. Paul, you’ll find a cluster of a half-dozen tiny homes.

It’s an enclave, and a safe space for people experiencing chronic homelessness.

“It’s a housing-first response to homelessness,” says Jeff O’Rourke, the pastor at Mosaic Christian Community. “Our neighbors are welcoming them and they’re sharing meals together and inviting each other into their lives for different events.”

This ‘sacred settlement,’ designed by Settled, a Twin Cities non-profit, has been in operation for nearly a year.

Each structure, about the size of a fish house, was built by church volunteers in the metro, at a cost of about $35,000 apiece. 

Gabrielle Clowdus, Settled’s founder and CEO, says the group, in partnership with area churches, has built six other tiny homes.

She says two more have been donated.  

The non-profit has guidelines about who can live in their sacred settlements.

Residents must be chronically homeless individuals — those who’ve been without shelter for at least a year, or those who’ve experienced homelessness four times in the past three years — and have a diagnosable addiction, disability, or mental illness.

“They haven’t just lost housing and social services, they’ve lost the essence and meaning of home,” Clowdus explains. “This is a place where they’re allowed to be indefinitely. They grow roots and become settled.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke with Laura, a 42-year-old resident at the Mosaic Christian Community sacred settlement.  

She says she’s experienced chronic homelessness for five years. 

“This has been an amazing opportunity,” Laura says. “It’s a very meaningful experience that I have a spot where you feel safe. That you have your own key. You have your own security; you have your own life.”

Five formerly unsheltered people live at the Mosaic Christian Community sacred settlement, along with three ‘intentional neighbors’ — volunteers who choose to live there and provide support.

“We want to wrap people in community and friendship, and just give them the support to not just get by, but to thrive,” O’Rourke explains.

Settled and its faith-based partners have been building these homes for several years.

But now, a new state law effective in January 2024 clarifies that sacred communities are a legal form of housing if they meet planning and zoning conditions.

“It just takes the guesswork out of a city how to permit it,” Clowdus notes. “What are the rules, and sort of sets a pathway and guidelines for what the community should look like and feel like.”

Among the new rules outlined in the law:

  • Between 33% to 40% of the homes must be occupied by volunteers.
  • Units must be constructed to standards by the American National Standards Institute, a DC-based non-profit.
  • The homes must have heating, electrical systems, smoke alarms and a dry compostable or plumbed toilet.
  • The homes must be under 400 square feet.
  • The homes must be built on a permanent chassis, be anchored to a pin foundation and have residential-grade windows, walls, insulation and doors.
  • Residents must also have access to water and electric utilities in their units, or in a common building, including a kitchen, toilet, bathing and laundry facilities.

Settled says all its tiny homes that are currently built won’t need to be adjusted to meet the new specifications, because they’re already in compliance. 

“All the comforts of home. There’s a sink and a comfortable bed and a place to do some work and a place to sit and rest,” O’Rourke says. “There’s not like direct running water to them, so we bring the water in pitchers and jugs. The church is used as a community space for showers and laundry and bathrooms as well.”

Settled says residents pay between $200 and $400 in monthly rent.

The community connects them to job opportunities and other services. 

David Doren, who says he once lived in a tent year-round, says for him, his tiny home residence is a new way of living.

“It takes a lot of the weight off,” he says. “It’s great having a door you can close. I like the community. It’s really nice having people next door that I can talk to or rely on. That’s a huge bonus.”

Clowdus says volunteers at Lord of Life Lutheran Church and Church of the Open Door, both in Maple Grove, are in the process of building tiny homes right now.

Pastor Joel Wight Hoogheem, at the Lord of Life Church, says one of its tiny homes is already in use at a settlement in Roseville — the other is still under construction in the church lot.

“Offer dignity and housing and everything that comes with it,” he says. “As these stories get told, that’s where the real power is, to say that there are lives that got changed. This could be good for the larger community as well.”

Hoogheem says his church members want to be good neighbors.

They’re in the decision-making process about whether to place any tiny homes on their property.

Clowdus says there is a vetting process for people who want to live in a settlement. 

“We’ve partnered for about eight years with an organization called ‘Walking with a Purpose,’ building intentional relationships with people on the street, knowing them by name, by face, by story and then inviting them into this,” she explains.

At Mosaic Christian Community, the church building is used for communal dinners and movie nights —and there’s an outdoor garden.

Settled and its faith-based partners say they’re optimistic the clarifying language in the new law will pave the way for other churches to launch sacred settlements of their own.  

A community, neighbors, and a home, Clowdus says. 

“It’s not a charity model — it’s relational. It’s saying, ‘Let’s walk side-by-side on our healing journey together,'” she notes. “I have something to learn, you have something to learn, and we’re going to enter into this collective healing together.”  

You can find out more about Settled here.