Homeless plan sparks debate in Robertson County

Dan Kiniry, Tiny Hope Village’s organizer, told attendees that the village emerged from a group of individuals who have run potlucks every Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Neal Park since 2007.

As the Tiny Hope Village, a nonprofit working to build tiny homes to house those experiencing homelessness in the Brazos Valley, fundraises and works toward building structures in Robertson County, numerous Hearne and county residents have expressed concern about — or outright opposition to — the effort.

About 50 people gathered Monday night inside Hearne Elementary School to listen to and ask questions of Dan Kiniry, Tiny Hope Village’s organizer, at a monthly gathering facilitated by Paula Deal and organized by Hearne’s Community Advisory Board. Robertson County Sheriff Gerald Yezak was among those in attendance. 

In comments during the meeting and in interviews after its conclusion, residents articulated myriad concerns and frustrations about the plan to build 24 tiny homes of 350-400 square feet on seven acres of land that is partially within the Hearne city limits and partially beyond them.

The Eagle reported Sept. 1 that Tiny Hope Village purchased land in Robertson County; Kiniry said Monday night that land closer to Bryan or College Station proved to be cost-prohibitive.

Many attendees said they were worried about a community focused on serving chronically homeless individuals with a history of addiction and/or mental illness and its potential effects on Hearne. Others said they were open to the village but said they felt blindsided by the land purchase — and they want to see the Tiny Hope Village organization, which is primarily made up of Brazos County residents, ensure that its board members include multiple people from Hearne and Robertson County.

On multiple occasions, declarations by attendees that the village would be better suited in Brazos County were met with applause.

Others in attendance voiced support for the endeavor. 

At the outset of the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, Kiniry told attendees that the village emerged from a group of individuals who have run potlucks every Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Neal Park since 2007.

“What I’m hearing is that there is a concern that our people are gonna be problems,” Kiniry said about halfway through the forum, to exclamations of agreement from the crowd. “One thing about being homeless is that people stop seeing you as a person and start seeing you as a problem.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that people are not problems,” he added. “Right now, we’re talking about these people as an idea. I can’t imagine that if you got to know them — if you came to our meals and sat down and ate with them — that you would still see them as problems.”

Hearne business owner Melanie Stellbauer said after the forum that she believed Hearne’s residents possess a spirit of loyalty and generosity, but she would like to see a “more thorough” plan of action for the village.

“We’re all caring people,” Stellbauer said. “We just don’t know if we have the jobs and transportation resources to support this. I would have liked to see more organization. I think [Kiniry] is brainstorming, but he overdid it when he bought the land before coming to the city and seeing whether we have enough jobs and resources here.” 

The Tiny Hope Village currently has $40,300, Kiniry said Friday. A timetable for construction on the village is unclear; Kiniry said that depends on fundraising success.

Kiniry, who lives in Brazos County, said Friday that he and others from Tiny Hope Village have met with individuals in Robertson County to discuss the plan, including Hearne’s mayor and some members of its city council. He said the organization has not met with law enforcement or with the Robertson County Commissioners Court.

Yezak, Robertson County’s sheriff, said after the meeting that he takes no official position on the village, but he did express curiosity about whether the village could support those with profound mental health challenges.

“I have a concern, because I do understand mental illness, and that’s people with special needs. Do we have the resources in Robertson County to address that for them?” Yezak said. 

A Change.org petition called “STOP Tiny Hope Village” has garnered more than 140 signatures as of Friday afternoon. The petition, authored by Robertson County resident Michelle Stowe, argues that the village, due to its remote setting, will set its residents up to fail.

“Robertson County needs to step in and stop Tiny Hope Village from being built,” the petition concludes.

Additionally, a public Facebook group called “Hearne, TX Informative Page…Say NO to Tiny Hope Village” has more than 100 members. 

Another point of discussion was that some in attendance want Tiny Hope Village to have firm rules and regulations in place before residents move in. Kiniry said during the meeting that the organization plans to work with residents, once they’ve moved in, to co-create a governance structure.

“We’re going to work with residents to help build leadership. I have lots of ideas about what the rules will be, but I want to work with them so that they feel a sense of ownership,” Kiniry said.

Connie Flickinger of Robertson County said that she was disappointed to hear people at the meeting, in her words, describe people with mental illnesses as inherently dangerous.

“I definitely believe it’s a good thing,” she said of the village. “There are a lot of people who cannot hold a job or live in government housing, but that doesn’t make them dangerous. This is a community of people that will help each other and, if you come into some hard times, help each other through things without kicking someone out. I’d like to see more positivity and people trying to support helping to solve the problem.”

The Rev. Nandra Perry and Deacon Charlotte Love of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church were among the religious leaders at the forum. Perry expressed gratitude for what she described as the civil way people discussed a topic “we don’t all agree about.”

“This is a hard conversation,” Perry said. “Tonight, we came together in this community. ... It doesn’t mean that everything was pretty, but we had a real dialogue and people learned things going both ways.”

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