Gayle Piepho arrived late to a panel discussion on homelessness at Incarnate Word Parish. It was a long day. She was tired.
Then she perked up — and became the link between public high school students, who are building tiny houses for people who are homeless, and a faith-based organization supporting the effort through its mission to promote social justice.
Piepho, a longtime member of the parish in Chesterfield, called it a Holy Spirit moment. At the discussion, a suggestion was made to build tiny homes to help people transition out of homelessness. All that was needed was someone to build them. Piepho, a math and physics teacher at Rockwood Summit High School in Fenton, had been training to teach a Geometry in Construction class, a new course that combines math equations and construction tools.
"My hand was inching up," Piepho recalled. "I said, 'I have two classes that can build these houses.' It was like, boom — the spirit moved."
The Tiny Houses Project will place three tiny homes — each measuring 14 by 26 feet — on a lot in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood of north St. Louis. The project is the effort of several groups, including North Grand Neighborhood Services, Rockwood School District and Social Justice 4 All. It's supported by the Catholic community, including St. Clare of Assisi School in Ellisville and Greg Vatterott Sr., president of Charles F. Vatterott Construction Co.
The joint effort addresses, in a small way, needs of homeless people in the St. Louis area.
"Our whole mission is to develop with dignity, and everybody should have a decent place to live," said Donna Torrillo, executive director of North Grand Neighborhood Services. "Everybody deserves to live in a decent house. If you develop with dignity, everybody will."
The project got rolling via Social Justice 4 All, a group of Catholics and other Christians from West St. Louis County who were invested in raising awareness of social issues and improving lives for others in St. Louis. The group learned about North Grand Neighborhood Services' efforts to provide affordable housing through the Solomon Project, a 12-year-old initiative to provide affordable housing in north St. Louis.
Rockwood students are building two houses, with a third to be built on site. The houses will sit on one lot at the corner of Fall Avenue and North Market Street, just across the street from Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish. Each house will have its own utilities, including plumbing and electricity, said Torrillo of North Grand Neighborhood Services. In order to meet city code requirements, the houses will be connected with an 8- by 10-foot deck.
North Grand, which owns the property, will manage the rental of the units. The organization is working with Assisi Houses, a project of St. Louis Winter Outreach, to determine candidates for the houses. Tenants will be required to have employment; the homes are meant to serve as a temporary stop in finding more permanent housing. North Grand also will work to connect tenants with needed social services.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help, with donations going toward the materials, infrastructure, permits and other costs associated with the building of the houses. To date, more than $23,000 has been raised toward the $75,000 goal, including a $15,000 donation from the Home Builder's Association.
Greg Vatterott, president of Charles F. Vatterott Construction Co., is helping coordinate the construction, including ordering the building supplies and linking Rockwood students with Rosemann and Associates, which provided pro bono services to design the houses. Vatterott, a member of St. Anselm Parish, said he's inspired by the efforts of many going into the project.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for a lot of well-intentioned folks," he said. "It's an exercise of faith, putting into practice something that will serve as an example of good works, good intentioned — and you might even say the Holy Spirit."
On a sunny morning, Desean Preyer stood outside his school, positioning a nail to secure two boards. The Rockwood Summit tenth-grader and several classmates were building a header for the house.
"This helps to support the door to stand up and not collapse," Desean explained. "Right now, we're gluing and nailing these boards together."
Preyer and 24 other students in Piepho's Geometry in Construction class are not only learning valuable math and construction skills by building these tiny houses. They're also gaining insight on people who are homeless, through discussions in class. Preyer said he hopes that the houses will help give people some stability as they find employment and a more permanent place to live.
"I hope this will give the homeless a chance, and to feel like they're getting back on track," said tenth-grader Rachel Menz. "Maybe this will be a chance to live to their potential."
Social Justice 4 All, which is helping with the project, started its efforts in 2016 by a group of people in west St. Louis County looking to do more to help the lives of others in St. Louis. A small core group, primarily from Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield, St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville and Woodlawn Presbyterian Church, have worked with other community organizations such as the Ville Collaborative near St. Matthew Parish in north St. Louis.
Member Dianne Marshak was moved by a trip last year to Chicago where she encountered several people who were homeless. "After I saw that, I thought, 'we have to do something.' I kept saying, if God wants this to happen, it will. And now this tiny house project has fallen into our laps. This whole thing has God's signature on it."
Tiny houses in the United States
Other cities across the United States are working on similar efforts to house homeless and low-income people via tiny houses. While their approaches and purposes may vary, the goal is to provide temporary shelter for those in need.
Kenton Village is a temporary community of tiny houses for homeless women in the Portland, Ore., area and is operated by Catholic Charities of Oregon. Read more about the effort here: www.stlouisreview.com/j8A
In Detroit, Cass Community Social Services is building 25 tiny houses for people who are low-income. The residents will include a mixture of people, including formerly homeless people, senior citizens, college students and a few Cass staff members. Read more here: casscommunity.org/tinyhomes/
Help Tiny Houses
To contribute to the Tiny Houses project, visit www.gofundme.com/tinyhouses-stl
Social Justice 4 All
A group of volunteers in north St. Louis and west St. Louis County who are inspired by the Holy Spirit to improve lives for all in St. Louis. For information, contact Bernie Sammons at firstname.lastname@example.org
North Grand Neighborhood Services
St. Louis Winter Outreach and Assisi Houses
Rockwood Geometry in Construction
Tiny Houses are a full-on missionary effort for St. Clare students
Lucie McMillen knew volunteering for the mission committee at St. Clare of Assisi School in Ellisville would give her a chance to help others.
When the seventh-grader learned that the school was going to raise funds for a tiny houses project, she got excited.
"I love looking at tiny houses," she said. "I've seen the Tiny House Hunters show on TV and it seemed like a cool thing."
And it's extra cool knowing that these tiny houses are going to help people who are homeless, Lucie said. St. Clare students will spend the entire school year raising money and awareness of the Tiny Houses Project, a multi-faceted effort to erect three tiny houses, on a lot owned by North Grand Neighborhood Services, in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood of north St. Louis by next spring.
Students' past efforts have included raising about $3,400 for several water pumps for Catholic Relief Services' missionary efforts. To keep the school energized about the tiny houses, mission committee members made models of tiny houses out of shoeboxes. Students also have been interviewing their peers to broadcast information to the school.
Last month, the school held a kickoff event, during which students watched a video about a similar community of tiny houses for the homeless in Detroit. Principal Kim Vangel videochatted with students from the site in north St. Louis where the houses will be located and interviewed Jim Moore, a member of Social Justice 4 All, about the impact of the project.
"We want to help students learn to appreciate their blessings, as well as how it feels to be part of a big community project," Vangel said.
Students also will take lessons about tiny houses and the homeless and expand upon them in other subjects, including math, religion and technology, Vangel said.
"We want to educate the kids on the why," said Sheila Trani, St. Clare coordinator of religious education and a member of Social Justice 4 All. "Our teachers and principal are working on how to get this into all angles. We want them to go and change the world."
For the fundraising effort, Trani noted that students are being encouraged to give without being rewarded. For example, one of the activities is a "Chores for Change" challenge in which students will complete chores at home to earn money to donate.
Trani said she hopes this kind of approach will give students more of an opportunity to invest in the situation, rather than just experiencing the reward of an out-of-uniform day for giving a donation. "What they give is love — it's not to be rewarded," she said. "That's what God calls us to do."
For Lucie McMillen, knowing that several people without shelter will soon have homes brings her great joy. But she also wants them to know not to lose faith, either.
"If people are down, they need to know that God is on their side and to trust in Him, because He has a plan for them."