Tiny houses keep families together

The Kiwanis Club of Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., provides new homes for a community shelter.

Story by Julie Saetre
Photos by Fontaine Glenn

The city of Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., has much to offer: It sits on the southern shore of Lake Erie, with easy-to-navigate roads that aren’t prone to traffic delays, and fun, affordable activities for families to find. But Erie also has a less sunny side: It falls within the boundaries of the country’s poorest ZIP code.

That’s why the Erie Kiwanis Club has a long history of partnering with Community Shelter Services, the largest shelter in the Pennsylvania area providing refuge and pathways to stability for those experiencing homelessness and poverty.

“Kiwanis is near and dear to my heart,” says Diane Lazette, the shelter’s executive director, “because of the kids and what we do.”

Kiwanis and the shelter have teamed up for fundraising, Halloween Trunk or Treat events, literacy efforts and more. But the club’s latest venture is making a big impact in a small way: The club is donating tiny homes for the shelter’s property so families can live together. The ribbon-cutting for the first donated house took place Tuesday, April 18.

“We know what the data is on the importance of trying to keep families together,” Lazette says. “Right now, you have a husband and wife come in, and they have a couple of kids. Husband goes one way (at the shelter), and Mom and kids go the other way. It’s not creating the solid mindset that we want to put forth in the people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Cathy Szymanski is an Erie Kiwanis Club member, former Kiwanis International Trustee (2019-2022) and a longtime supporter of Community Shelter Services. She began looking into housing options for families experiencing homelessness when she learned of a Kiwanis project in New Jersey involving converted rail cars. She and her husband found the tiny home concept during their research.

Each year, the Erie club raises funds through its successful Diners Card program. People purchase a card for US$25, and local participating restaurants agree to provide a certain discount or free item to cardholders. In the current Kiwanis year alone, the club has raised $47,000.

It began, Szymanski says, when the club approached Lazette. “We went to Diane and said, ‘Check this out. We have a nice fundraiser. We have a nice foundation. We need to make this happen in Erie.’”

The club hopes to provide four to eight tiny homes for the Kiwanis Village on the grounds of Community Shelter Services. Each home can accommodate up to four family members and includes two sets of bunkbeds, two cozy sitting areas, a sofa, a TV, a small bathroom and even a couple of small storage areas. Electricity, heat, air conditioning and water will also be provided, and each home will have its own door with a lock.

Residents shower and eat inside the main shelter, where four hot meals are available each day. School buses stop in front of the shelter, and staff members make sure no student misses a ride to school (accidentally or intentionally).

Kids can let off their energy in a full playground and they can ride bicycles in a safe lot. Parents can use free washers and dryers for laundry, and if they need proper identification (driver’s license, birth certificate, Social Security card), staff will help obtain them at the shelter’s expense.

Best of all, no deadlines loom.

“We’re not going to kick them out,” Lazette says. “They’re going to be able to say there as long as is needed.”

That touches Szymanski’s heart.

“The realization that we are going to provide families with a safe haven — I mean, just imagine,” she says. “It gives me goose bumps thinking about it.”


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