Liberty House field tests ‘tiny’ sustainable homes for the homeless

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MANCHESTER, NH – Keith Howard is no stranger to living on the edge. A former homeless vet who’s battled alcohol addiction, there have been plenty of dark, forgettable days in his past.

But Howard chooses not to forget.

In his capacity as Executive Director of Liberty House transitional living for homeless veterans, Howard has in fact chosen to do something radical in an effort to help others who have found themselves homeless and without options for affordable, permanent housing.

Howard is going to spend the next year living in a cargo trailer. It’s a field test to prove that the “tiny home” movement, embodied in small cargo trailers called Liberty Homes, may be a sustainable, affordable solution to ending chronic homelessness in New Hampshire.

It’s not an original idea, says Howard. Such small home projects aimed at relieving the problem of homelessness are sprouting up in other parts of the country, including “Quixote Village” in Washington state,  “Opportunity Village” in Eugene, Or., and OM Village in Wisconsin.

He thinks it could happen here, but he wants to prove that it’s possible in a state where the temperature range spans 100 degrees in the course of a year.

The 20-by-8.5-by 7.5-foot trailer will be home to Liberty House Executive Director Keith Howard for the next year.
The 20-by-8.5-by 7.5-foot trailer will be home to Liberty House Executive Director Keith Howard for the next year.

On April 4 Howard began sleeping in a 170-square-foot trailer parked on the property of the Liberty House on West Baker Street. The silver trailer, which was purchased for about $7,000, is solid, durable, and weather resistant. Refurbishing and modifying the trailer into a living space will cost an additional $3,000, including insulation, simple wiring,  a waterless toilet system, a propane-run heater and stove top.

As noted in his first blog post detailing his experience, Howard said he woke up cold a few times and turned the heater on to take the chill off. His faithful companion, Lucy the dog, didn’t complain. Together, they are ready to prove that there are creative answers to the persistent problem of homelessness, in communities around New Hampshire and across the map.

Howard’s own story helps explain why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Eight years ago he found himself struggling for reasons to go on living. His addiction to alcohol had tapped his will to live.

Because of his status as a military veteran, Howard was able to find help and enter a recovery program through the VA Medical Center in Manchester.

“I was on the streets of Nashua stealing mouthwash to drink – that was my drink of choice – and I was lucky enough as a veteran to find my way to the VA hospital. Basically I walked in and said, ‘Hi. My name is Keith Howard and I don’t want to live anymore,” says Howard.

That first step forward led him into recovery and transitional housing at Harbor Homes in Nashua.

“That’s how I managed to remake my life, both personally and professionally, and at this point, I want to step back to where I was in order to help other people escape that life. That’s why I’m at Liberty House, and why I do what I do here,” says Howard. “The Liberty Home Project is a natural extension of that.”

Over the next few weeks  modifications will continue, with the addition of insulation, windows, vents and flooring. There’s a composting toilet installed and a space in the back with a desk, a crate for Lucy, a rocking chair and a bed, which Howard reports could use a little more padding.

Dan Bricker, left, who works for the VA Hospital, stops by to see the cargo trailer and catch up with Keith Howard, of Liberty House.
Dan Bricker, left, who works for the VA Hospital, stops by to see the cargo trailer and catch up with Keith Howard, of Liberty House.

“It’s not perfect, but once the weather changes it will be more comfortable,” he says.

In the midst of an impromptu tour Dan  Bricker, a peer support specialist with the Manchester VA Medical Center, pops in to check out Howard’s new digs.

“I’m happy to help with whatever you need,” Bricker said, as Howard described the modification plans. “This is what I love about you and your organization – there’s not one thing you do that’s not 100 percent for the veterans. This is tangible and practical, and I love the idea.”

Liberty House has a capacity for temporary transitional living for 10 veterans, and the beds are almost always filled. Howard says the plan would be for former, current and future residents to exchange sweat equity for a chance to convert their own trailers into a permanent home.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions, which is why I’m doing this field study,” Howard says.

“My hope is that there will be a community – or two or three – within the Greater Manchester area that will say, ‘We do care about homeless vets and being creative. What can we do to be the first town that will be open to the idea? Let’s try this out and see how it goes,” Howard says.

Cargo trailers used for future homes don’t necessarily have to be brand new, like the one Howard is modifying.

“A contractor could be upgrading his trailer and donate it as a tax deduction. The beauty of these trailers is that they’re water tight, air tight and well built,” Howard says.

“Liberty House is not a home. Our  transitional facility is only a three or four month stop on the journey for veterans in need of permanent housing,” says Howard.


We’ll be following along as Howard continues his field test, checking in and sharing his blog posts with Manchester Ink Link readers. You can learn more about the Liberty Homes project here


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About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!