The following feature appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Medley Magazine.
Dolphus Johnson was one of about 800 homeless people in Syracuse. His thin build, emphasized by his baggy polo and jeans, hints to all the meals he has skipped. The lines etched in the 40-year-old’s face suggest years of stress over where to rest his head for the night. His back brace implies a complex medical history, adding to his plight. After over a decade of drifting amongst acquaintances’ houses, Johnson wound up on the harbor side of the Onondaga Creekwalk one night with nowhere to go. While he appreciated the help of shelters like the Rescue Mission and the Oxford Inn, Johnson didn’t like such temporary stays. “The reason I want a home is so I don’t have to be in and out. I wanna be at home,” he says.
Today, Johnson has his wish. This past July, he and another former homeless man moved into the 250-square-foot homes on Rose Avenue, the first two of many to be built by A Tiny Home for Good. Executive director Andrew Lunetta, a tall, fresh-faced man tanned from building under the summer sun, founded the organization in 2014 after eight years of volunteering at the homeless shelters and asking people like Johnson what they wanted in a home. “Nobody says they want a mansion. Guys want a place that’s small and manageable, and when they close the door, they know their stuff will still be there when they come back,” Lunetta explains.
He fulfilled those needs with tiny homes. Similar programs around the country include those in Chicago, Madison, Austin, San Jose, and several other cities. Melissa Cadwell, the coordinator for sustainability management at Syracuse University, thinks the program could be “a start” to eradicating homelessness in Syracuse. “What they’ve done in the city, giving people who need homes their own personal space that is just large enough for them, is an amazing program,” Cadwell says.
With three more houses built on South Salina Street in November, A Tiny Home for Good will have housed five people total in 2016. The organization already secured six more lots to build on next year. As the program expands, Lunetta will fill the houses based on references from the homeless shelters. He is currently choosing guys he’d feel comfortable moving into a neighborhood. Unlike in the tiny house villages cropping up nationwide, the houses built by A Tiny Home for Good mix in with the rest of the city. Erin Fitzgerald, the digital communications specialist for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, praises Lunetta’s approach. “It’s really reintegrating back into the community as much as you can, and that’s huge,” she says. In September, Johnson had already met his neighbors and even hosted a barbecue on his lawn. “I got some cool neighbors,” Johnson says, “People are legitimate with me around as long as I don’t bring them problems.”
Born in Rochester, Johnson enlisted in the Army in 1996 and was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, but he left after two months because of medical issues. He wasn’t there long enough to use the GI Bill to attend college, so he claimed himself as a disabled person at Social Security. Johnson moved to Syracuse to live with his then-girlfriend, who would soon give birth to the first of three children. When their relationship ended and the kids entered foster care, Johnson had to move out, and that’s how easy it is to become homeless.
“According to the most recent Census Bureau report in 2015, 31 percent of Syracuse’s population lives in poverty.”
A wide, bright grin spreads over his face as he waters his already lush, green grass, his flowers, and his vegetable garden. “I got squash, spinach…I don’t know what the other thing is, but there’s three of them,” Johnson says, gesturing at the wooden enclosure in the backyard. A stick that reads “radish” pokes out of the soil. Inside the house, a bed with a fitted sheet sits in one corner, Johnson’s clothes rest in a pile in the closet, and the bathroom gleams spotless. A card reading “Take care of yourself” and a metal crucifix adorn the kitchen table.
Johnson views the tenant-landlord interaction as a 50-50 relationship with both parties carrying equal weight. He pays Lunetta the rent with his Social Security money, and Lunetta provides the roof over his head. “I’m just a 50 guy. That’s what I’m doing up in here, keeping my house clean and doing what I’m supposed to do. And I just got my laundry did — that’s a 50,” Johnson explains, “I just try to keep it real.”
In the university bubble, it’s easy to forget — or be indifferent to — how much of the city’s residents are struggling like Johnson. “You walk 10 minutes away from campus and you’ll find some of the worst poverty not just in Syracuse but in the entire nation,” Lunetta says. According to the most recent Census Bureau report in 2015, 31 percent of Syracuse’s population lives in poverty, but it’s difficult to get them recognition and support. Lunetta recalls how when seeking community approval for the tiny homes, people would angrily storm out of meetings before Lunetta could even finish his presentation, saying things like, “Look, we don’t want to have to step over people when they’re drunk in the morning,” Lunetta says, “The stigma that surrounds homelessness is so negative.”
Fitzgerald says attitudes like these are common. “It’s helpful to make it so your neighbors understand it’s not ‘us’ versus ‘them’ — anyone could become homeless. These are your neighbors, your friends, your family,” she says.
However, Johnson has faith that tiny houses will make getting out of homelessness easier. “I look over my friends and hope they can get somewhere in life and get tiny homes. Most of them is in shelters. They don’t know when to get out and they ask me, ‘How did you do that?’” Johnson says. With Lunetta and A Tiny Home for Good leading the way, tiny houses could be the way out for Syracuse’s homeless, until 800 dwindles down to zero.
written by Erica Petz