St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Cloud's oldest, installed a tiny house on its property last spring with the hope of putting a roof over a homeless man’s head.
It's a 132-square-foot shelter on wheels with electricity, water and heat. Similar tiny houses have become an increasingly popular way to diminish homelessness in cities like Madison, Duluth, and Austin, Texas.
In St. Cloud, the school district estimates that some 300 students will face homelessness at some point during the academic year.
The man, whom the church refers to as John Doe, has been living in the house for nearly three months. He’s about 40 or 50 years old, contributes by doing janitorial work, and sits quietly in the back during Sunday sermons.
He was chosen by parishioners who volunteer with the St. Cloud Homeless Men’s Coalition, who determined that he would be the best fit.
He’s a “gentle soul, very delightful guy” with some physical deformities, says church attorney Robert Feigh. “Homeless people are messy, messy in the sense that a number of them have mental health problems, past addiction problems, and he probably has the least of that. He’s very, very quiet, but he’s a very nice fellow.”
St. Cloud doesn’t have any zoning rules concerning tiny houses, but city inspectors have been employing various tactics to separate St. John’s from its homeless resident, Feigh says.
The problem began when the church applied for a conditional use permit in July 2015, which St. Cloud promptly denied. The church argued that the city lacked the authority to infringe on their right to exercise their religion on their own property. Helping the poor was part of their religion, St. John’s insisted.
But the city wouldn’t leave St. John’s alone. Inspectors served a notice of violation, which came with threats of fines. They ordered the church to first bury electrical cable running to the house, and then requested it be dug up, inspected, and reburied.
“The threat is somehow to remove electricity, somehow evict him. I don’t know what they were gonna do, fine us,” Feigh says. “They just wouldn’t go away.”
So St. John’s filed suit against the city in federal court, citing the Bill of Rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
Feigh says communication with the city has dwindled down to legal filings between him and the city attorney, who has declined to comment.
“I don’t wanna say they have tunnel vision, but they see it as a vague potential problem if there were tiny houses all over the city, that that wouldn’t be good, and it probably wouldn’t be,” he says. “Or there should be a legislative solution where the city council passes something to rectify this. But they haven’t done that. … That’s the big distinction here. The government cannot interfere with churches rendering to the poor on their own property. That’s what it amounts to.”