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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Tiny Homes, Big Mission

By Lori Wilson , posted Mar 24, 2021
Eden Village executive director Shawn Hayes stands in front of the community's first tiny home. (Photo by Kevin Kleitches)
Like many altruistic minds, local social worker Donna Evans has volunteered at soup kitchens and similar organizations to help community members in need. For her, though, that work just didn’t feel like enough.
 
Perhaps longtime friends Tom and Kim Dalton sensed Evans’ desire to do more when they asked her to join several other New Hanover stakeholders in developing a community for chronically homeless people in Wilmington.
 
“Being able to give someone a home and a community to nurture them and gain independence,” Evans said, “… I was convinced that that’s how to solve homelessness. It’s more than a soup kitchen, more than a pantry. Give them a home, and that’s where the answer lies.”
 
To Evans and other local community members, the Daltons proposed building a community of tiny houses that would be rented to the homeless at low, affordable rates – only $300 all-inclusive. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they modeled their idea after homes in Springfield, Missouri, with the same mission, called Eden Village.
 
Earlier this year, the first tiny home of the Wilmington Eden Village was completed on Kornegay Avenue. Thirty-one other units will soon follow.
 
For months now, Evans and her social work colleague Ursula Greene have volunteered to find and develop relationships with homeless folks throughout town with the lofty goal of making Wilmington a “city where no one sleeps outside” – the Eden Village motto.
 
The social work duo and other Eden Village representatives have distributed applications to the local homeless, often helping them complete the forms, so that people can inquire about joining the tiny house neighborhood when all construction is complete.
 
To qualify for Eden Village, applicants must have been homeless in Wilmington for at least one year, be on disability and be single.
 
“Because they’re disabled, they can’t work,” Evans said, “and if they do work, they risk losing their disability income. There’s a lot of people out there like that.”
 
In fact, the Eden Village team estimates that 50 to 100 people fit this category in Wilmington.
 
“I’ve been out with Donna and Ursula,” said Eden Village executive director Shawn Hayes. “They know everybody, and everybody knows them. One of the unique things about them is even if people are not a good fit for Eden Village, they’re still helping, finding them places to go.”
 
When the first Eden Village community is complete, Evans said another will be built to meet the need. First, though, the team continues to focus on fundraising for phase one. The Daltons and other fundraisers had secured $1 million in funds before the first tiny home was completed, but another $2 million is still needed.
 
“We have to put in a lot of infrastructure,” Hayes said. “We need drainage to put in the electric. A community center needs to be built … It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things before we can finish putting all the houses in.”
 
Evans, a former coworker, recommended that Hayes join the team due to his calm and “stable” leadership. Before committing to the team, Hayes visited Eden Village in Missouri.
 
“I had to see what it was going to be for myself,” he said. “I had to see it in action, see what it looks like. Once I saw that I said, ‘OK.’ I feel I was called to do this.”
 
The Eden Village team has begun a feverish stage of fundraising and hope that others will feel called to help as well. Although more homes will be built over time, residents will not move in until all construction is complete.
 
“We don’t want to make it just one or two people,” Evans said. “We want it to be a community, helping each other, coming from the same background … So many times homeless folks hear about a great opportunity, and it falls through. We don’t want to do that.”
 
Homes in Eden Village will face each other to emphasize the spirit of community and togetherness. The gated neighborhood will feature sidewalks and walking paths, but no cars will come in and out to secure the safety of the residents. Many homeless people are often escaping dangerous or traumatizing situations, Evans explained, such as domestic violence.
 
Each tiny house features two recliners, a TV, a bedroom dresser and a bathroom – all included in the $300 rent.
 
“So many people are helping in a big way so that every house is completely furnished,” Evans said. “Our folks don’t have anything … (Homeless) people can hardly believe that it’s true that something like this would happen to them. It’s really sweet, really humbling.”
 
Evans said she has been “blown away” by the many calls they’ve received from community members wanting to volunteer. “
 
The majority of people want what Eden Village wants,” Hayes said. “We want to make Wilmington a place where no one sleeps outside. Most people see an opportunity.”
 
The team hopes to have the rest of Eden Village complete later this year. To learn more about the project, visit edenvillagewilmington.org.
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