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Unique tiny homes village aims to help people facing mental illness

The Farm at Penny Lane community will be studied by UNC's School of Social Work to see how the project might be replicated around the country.
Unique tiny homes village aims to help people facing mental illness
Posted at 11:04 AM, Aug 25, 2023

It starts with a colorful front door, which opens up into 416 square feet of home.

"The colors on the doors are kind of our signature," said Alaina Money-Garman, CEO of Garman Homes. "It is a small space, but it is packed with thought and love and envisioning someone getting a lot better inside this space."

Welcome to the Farm at Penny Lane: More than just a collection of tiny homes, it's a community built upon mental health services near Pittsboro, North Carolina. 

"Having a safe, affordable place to call home — it's so paramount," said Thava Mahadevan, director of the nonprofit XDS or Cross Disability Services and part of the faculty of the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine.

"To me, this is very personal. I am a refugee from Sri Lanka, one of the lucky ones to get out alive, and experienced some housing insecurity," Mahadevan said.

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Partnering with UNC's School of Social Work and homebuilder Garman Homes, the Farm at Penny Lane's tiny homes are coming to life as a pilot program to provide affordable housing for people suffering from mental illness.

Becoming homeless is a major risk for those suffering from a mental illness. According to HUD, on any given night, an average of 553,000 people are homeless in America. Approximately 20% of them are dealing with mental illness.

Once the application process for the Farm at Penny Lane wraps up, the village will welcome its first residents in September.

"It's going to be about $300 a month and they will sign a lease, a yearly lease, and they could live here as long as they want to," Mahadevan said.

Besides the 15 homes, there are mental health services there, set amidst their working organic farm – it's also part of the therapy offered – where produce is grown for sale and for the residents who will be living here.

There's also animal therapy, including a bunny village.

"Using bunnies as a way to engage clients, and also it's a form of therapy, in some ways," Mahadevan said. "Holding on to a bunny can make a huge difference sometimes."

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Yet, the stars of the village are the homes. Each one cost $50,000 to build and was paid for through private fundraising. Garman Homes' Alaina Money-Garman said they built the homes to specific criteria.

"The design of the homes is actually based on research by Dr. Amy Wilson and with the UNC School of Social Work," she said, "and her research on people with serious mental illness talked about how the space can either contribute to or take away from someone's mental health."

With that in mind, some of the one-bedroom homes face the street, while others are parallel to it to help provide a sense of privacy.

The homes also have multiple windows to let in natural light. Even the placement of the kitchen island came into play.

"We wanted to envision residents inviting people into their homes. We know that connection is part of healing," Money-Garman said. "We hope that this is the first of many projects that aim to meet people where they are in the housing spectrum and not be forgotten."

The Farm at Penny Lane community will be studied by UNC's School of Social work to see how the project might be replicated around the country.

"We want to make sure we have the metrics and we have the data behind to support the work that is happening over here," Mahadevan said. "Being able to consult and being able to help other communities will be one of our priorities."


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