FOREST LAKE, Minn. -- When Rev. John Klawiter first heard about plans to build tiny homes to help tackle homelessness, he had a revelation.
His church, Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake, could lead the charge.
“We’re not just writing a check to an organization to do something and then we don’t really understand what impact that has downstream,” he said. “We’re actually doing something tangible where we can see and help people.”
On Sunday, the Faith Lutheran congregation voted to partner with Settled, a nonprofit organization working to end homelessness, and develop a plan to build 12 tiny homes for homeless veterans on the church’s 7.8-acre property.
The project, called “Sacred Settlement,” will help members of Faith Lutheran “build a bigger level of compassion and understanding about their own faith,” Klawiter said. “If we can help Christians become more Christian, it would be a huge win — just helping people see and feel and experience and get to know the people who will be living there by name and understand that the people who are living on the church property have their own unique and individual stories and that they are God’s beloved children just like them.”
Settled was founded on the premise that ending homelessness includes connecting residents with sustainable housing, purposeful work and a supportive community, said co-founder Gabrielle Clowdus. The organization has turned to faith-based organizations for multiple resources: zoning-exempt sites for its tiny houses and the fellowship of church members willing to mentor and support the formerly homeless in forming a community, she said.
“The No. 1 barrier to building affordable housing is NIMBYism — not in my backyard,” she said.
But the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects faith organizations from zoning laws that substantially burden the religious exercise, according to Clowdus.
“That really protects religious institutions to carry out their mission on their land,” she said. “It enables development in a way that no other can to overcome NIMBYism. I would argue that (addressing homelessness) is the mission of every faith community. The sacred texts of 13 of the world religions have some aspect of the Golden Rule within it. … This is how we are meant to live: look out for one another, love one another, we belong to one another.”
When Klawiter heard Clowdus and Settled co-founder Anne Franz speak about their plan to build tiny homes, he went up to them right after the meeting.
“He said, ‘… I think we’re the church to create the path for hundreds more to do this thing. I think this is the moment — and that we’re supposed to be the tip of this spear,’” Clowdus said. “We joke that Anne and I spent the next two months trying to talk him out of it: ‘… It’s going to be a total test on your congregation, and there could be a lot of pushback from neighbors. You could have people leave your church. … If it were easy, plenty of people would be doing it.’ Nothing scared him. He was just gung ho about this — and instantly surrounded by a group of people within his congregation that wanted it. They wanted it with everything they had.”
The 12 tiny homes are expected to cost between $20,000 and $30,000 each. Community members would share kitchen and dining spaces, bathrooms, laundry, gardens, workshops and gathering areas. Community advocates and specially-trained volunteer neighbors — called “missionals” — would also live on site “to ensure a thriving settlement,” Clowdus said.
Residents would come from Washington County or the northeast metro. Clowdus said. Settled plans to work closely with Washington County Community Services, local social workers, veterans’ organizations and the Forest Lake Police Department “to identify individuals or couples that would be a good fit for the community.”
If church and city officials sign off on the plans, Clowdus said residents could be moving in to the new Sacred Settlement community in 2021.
Forest Lake Mayor Mara Bain said Monday that city officials are aware of the church’s interest in the project.
“We look forward to learning more about their proposal and addressing their application should it come forward,” she said.
Klawiter said he hopes Forest Lake officials will embrace the project.
“Forest Lake has a history of saying ‘No,'” he said. “When I heard their presentation, I thought this could be just be the thing that really captures Forest Lake because Forest Lake is such a purple city — there are a lot of Republicans and Democrats in our community, and there are certainly a lot of Republicans and Democrats in my congregation. How do we do something that is really going to unite us in faith in such a divisive time? We feel like this is the chance for us to lead the way.”
His sermon last week focused on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“The church really has an opportunity to really do something right now,” he said. “Do we want to be the priest and the Levite who continues to walk by, or do we want to be the Samaritan who actually lives out this calling and says, ‘My neighbor is in need, and God, out of God’s abundant love, has given us this gift?'”