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Jonathan Fisher was used to others not making eye contact as they walked by, pretending he wasn’t there. Homeless and battling substance abuse, he had lived on the streets for two years when he met Linda Brown, a volunteer for a drop-in shelter for homeless people. Brown, who is also a real estate professional with Amax Real Estate in Springfield, Mo., was about to change Fisher’s life.
“In the worst moments of my life, Linda gave me guidance, care, and made me feel like I was still worth something,” Fisher says. He says that Brown took the time to learn about how he became homeless, and then encouraged him as he rebuilt his life. She even offered him a job. Now sober, Fisher works full-time for Brown to help others experiencing struggles similar to what he went through.
For about nine years until 2018, Brown and her husband David operated The Gathering Tree at various locations until they were able to lease a storefront solidify their efforts into a five-night-a-week drop-in shelter. The Gathering Tree was a place where homeless individuals could eat, shower, do laundry, and also use a computer and socialize. Guests played bingo and participated in karaoke.
Brown listened to their stories over the years: Many became homeless due to a lack of a safety net. Often, physical or mental disabilities proved too difficult to navigate alone. Their program’s vision expanded over time, spawning a tiny-home community called Eden Village, which provides permanent housing and a range of support services for the formerly homeless. Its driving philosophy is that the root causes of a person’s homelessness cannot be thoroughly addressed until his or her immediate housing needs are met. The village, which began welcoming residents two years ago, is where Fisher now works in construction and maintenance. It now consists of 31 tiny homes.
“I watched as my friends walked off into the darkness to a hidden, wet, cold camp while we went home to a warm bed. I had to do something.” —Linda Brown
Brown recalls the turning point in 2016 that made her want to expand her community’s reach. She was closing up for the night after visiting with 15 homeless people at The Gathering Tree. “It was a cold, blustery winter night, and I watched as my friends walked off into the darkness to a hidden, wet, cold camp, while we went home to a warm bed,” Brown says. “I had to do something.” That was when her vision formed for the tiny-home village that serves as a place where the chronically disabled homeless “can live with dignity and self-worth,” says Brown, who vowed to make Springfield a city “where no one sleeps outside.”
Planting the Seed, Watching It Grow
Seeking sponsors for the nascent community, she shared her vision for Eden Village with churches and nonprofits throughout the area. In 2016, serendipity led Brown to like-minded advocate Nate Schleuter, who had relocated from Austin, Texas, where he helped lead a tiny-home village for the homeless.
Working together, they revealed plans for Eden Village that year, drawing sponsorships from Coldwell Banker, the Greater Springfield Board of REALTORS®, local banks, churches, and area residents. By February 2019, all 31 tiny homes, which cost about $42,000 each, were occupied. “It takes someone who wants to do something, and then believes they can. I’ve watched Linda Brown live that out,” says Schleuter, now the chief visionary officer for Eden Village. “It’s exciting to watch the homeless who thought they’d live the rest of their life on the street now have a home.”
Finding the Right Home
Brown’s 13 years of real estate expertise has been essential to the development of the tiny-home community. She learned of a listing for an abandoned 4.2-acre mobile park on Springfield’s east side. The property wouldn’t need to be rezoned for tiny-home trailers, and the infrastructure and utilities were already in place. “We’ve been able to accomplish our vision more efficiently by finding properties that already have the right zoning,” Schlueter says.
The tiny homes are rolled in on wheels attached to their steel frames, qualifying them as recreational vehicles. The 400-square-foot individual homes are fully furnished, including dishes and bedding. Residents pay $300 per month, which includes utilities. Most receive government disability checks of $725 per month to cover expenses. They can remain in their home as long as they wish, provided they remain a good neighbor in the community.
The village includes a 4,000-square-foot community center where residents can hold cookouts, do laundry, and access a medical office staffed with student nurse volunteers and mental health professionals. In July, Eden Village was the site of a marriage ceremony for two residents. Residents are taking health precautions during the pandemic, wearing masks and maintaining social distance to help keep each other and volunteers safe.
Plans for additional villages are already underway on donated land. Eden Village 2 is expected to house 24 residents in tiny homes by the end of 2020. Then, work will begin on Eden Village 3, which could house up to 80 residents in duplexes. Over the next six years, Brown plans to have five villages across Springfield, housing an estimated 200 homeless people.
Changing Lives, One Home at a Time
Eden Village values staff relationships with the people they serve, who are rebuilding the foundation of their lives. Fisher says Brown’s devotion helped him emerge from the grip of homelessness. “She helped me to build a better life,” Fisher says. “Even when I was struggling with homelessness and sobriety, she showed me I was valuable and that my potential shouldn’t be wasted. She made me feel like I belonged somewhere.”
Other cities are seeking to duplicate Eden Village. One project is underway in Wilmington, N.C., and 34 other communities are making plans.
Brown remains focused on getting more homeless people off the streets. And always, she isn’t afraid to look them in the eye. “Too often, we’re scared that if we make eye contact, they’ll ask us for something,” Brown says. “They all have stories about why they’re homeless. They’re all human beings just like us. Sometimes, it’s just someone showing they care that can make all the difference.”