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Tiny homes made in Amish country could soon house Philly's homeless

Alfred Lubrano, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- Out in Lancaster County, amid the low hills and high corn, horse-drawn Amish buggies slow tourist traffic on winding country roads.

Old-time preachers reign on the radio, warning of dark consequences for sinners run amok in 21st-century America.

And in the town of Leola, not 50 feet from a clutch of cows lounging under a hot summer sun, a small workshop hums and bustles with the creation of a product that could, someday soon, help the homeless in Philadelphia.

"Tiny homes," said Matt Meshey, a co-owner of Liberation Tiny Homes. "We see them as the solution to a lot of issues, homelessness being one of them. This has gone from a novelty to people realizing it's something they can really do."

Both Philadelphia officials and organizers of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway -- 2 months old as of Monday -- have discussed the possibility of using tiny homes to house many of those now living in tents on a ball field at 22nd Street.

How is it that a group of 12 Lancaster County craftsmen who either grew up Amish or have Amish heritage is hammering out a new way to potentially solve one of the knottiest problems in America's poorest big city, 75 miles to the east?

 

This unlikely story starts with an impassioned individual with a vision.

Stephanie Sena, 41, a professor who teaches courses on poverty at the Widger School of Law at Villanova University, has worked for years helping individuals who are homeless. She's the founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP). Since 2011, the organization, with chapters at various local colleges and universities, operates homeless shelters in church basements during the cold months.

Sena, who considers homelessness a human rights violation, is on a first-name basis with many of the roughly 1,000 street homeless in Philadelphia. A few of the 100 to 150 people now occupying the Parkway encampment have been to her house for dinner.

She's been working with City Council as well as the Department of Licenses and Inspections on a plan that could recalibrate current thinking on homelessness.

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