I’m such a different person now. Beloved Community Village was such a life- changing thing for me. It’s close to my heart.
THERE’S A REASON AMANDA LYALL works so well with people living on the streets.
“I can hold their hands and be face-to-face with them and say, ‘Baby, I’ve been where you are, and it’s going to be OK,’” said Lyall, 33.
As recently as two years ago, Lyall was homeless, too. Newly arrived in Denver without so much as a photo ID, she moved from shelter to shelter, until she heard about a new opportunity in Beloved Community Village (BCV), a pilot venture backed by DU’s Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise.
BCV opened in July 2017 in Denver’s hip River North neighborhood, placing 22 people experiencing homelessness in a community of 11 tiny homes. Launched by the Colorado Village Collaborative, BCV is Denver’s first “city” of tiny homes. It’s also a democratically self-governed “intentional community” whose members were selected based on risk and need.
Lyall’s application was accepted, granting her access to a shower, toilet and place to rest the 80-pound pack she had been carrying everywhere.
“When you’ve been out on the streets for a while, you start feeling like you’re less than a dog, like you don’t matter, because that’s how you are treated,” she said. “To see all these people who really cared about us was incredible.”
Proponents and skeptics alike wondered whether the idea would have lasting value. To find out, the Barton Institute commissioned the Graduate School of Social Work’s Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness to evaluate the project.
According to the resulting study, the village is not just a success; it is a model with lessons to share.
“Across the methods and participants, the message is consistent: The village is welcome, villagers are succeeding and are an important part of the community,” said associate professor Daniel Brisson, executive director of the Burnes Center.
Providing shelter is BCV’s key mission, but it also is intended to cultivate self-empowerment and a shared sense of community. In keeping with that philosophy, villagers reviewed and approved the Burnes Center research plan, which included quantitative and qualitative analysis of surveys, interviews and reviews of BCV administrative records. Results were assessed at individual, neighborhood and organizational levels.
At an individual level, researchers found significant improvements in employment outcomes and health and well-being indicators. Villagers reported increased satisfaction and decreased anxiety after moving into their tiny homes. They also described a significant decrease in how often their belongings were stolen, and they reported making “moderate progress” in meeting personal goals ranging from securing long-term housing to managing finances.
The research team also examined such community impacts as traffic, noise and safety, finding few challenges associated with the village. At the organizational level, they assessed development of a sense of community—the social capital that can contribute to improved health and well-being—within the village, determining that such a sense had emerged.
The community certainly has helped Lyall land on her feet. Within six months, she found steady employment. She now works for the nonprofit Bayaud Enterprises, coordinating and performing laundry services for people on the streets.
Plus, she is helping plan other tiny home villages in Denver and elsewhere. If the concept catches on, the BCV example and the Burnes Center research will be invaluable.
“There have been lots of people opining about why this is a good or bad idea. But until we conduct research, we really don’t know what works,” Brisson said. “I feel confident in saying let’s keep going with this approach. This doesn’t mean that tiny homes anywhere will be a success. This approach is novel. We need to know a lot more.”
Lyall, for one, has no doubt that the villages will continue to make meaningful change. All she has to do is compare her life now to where she was two years ago.
“I have a confidence that I’ve never had in my life,” she said. “I’m such a different person now. [BCV] was such a life-changing thing for me. It’s close to my heart.”