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Spurred on by the death of a friend, a man builds a small house for Native Americans

On the southern outskirts of downtown Minneapolis, between a busy freeway ramp and a transit station, lies a miniature version of the American dream.

It’s a house so small it could fit in a standard parking space. It’s about one-fifteenth the size of a typical Minnesota home, but there’s still enough space for a bunk bed, kitchen sink, refrigerator, folding table with two bar stools, and a bathroom. bathroom with shower. The roof of the building is topped with enough solar panels to power the house and keep it warm during a Minnesota winter.

The house is a monument to the determination and ingenuity of its creator, James MacKenzie, a journeyman electrician from Columbia Heights. MacKenzie was spurred to action by the death of his childhood friend and the sight of Native Americans sleeping outside on the city streets. Made largely from recycled materials, the home also serves as an iconic response to the state’s affordable housing crisis and the growing number of people living on the streets or in emergency shelters.

“I hope this broadens our view of what is possible, because I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the homelessness crisis,” said Michael Goze, executive director of American Indian Community Development. Corp. (AICDC), who received the house as a donation. “People can touch this [home] and see that and think about if we can do it on a larger scale.”

On a recent morning, a small crowd of members of the Indigenous community watched in adoring silence as the forest-green house rolled into a parking lot outside the Homeward Bound homeless shelter in Minneapolis. Over the next few weeks, the 146 square foot structure will become temporary housing for an Indigenous person transitioning from the streets or a refuge into permanent housing.

For MacKenzie, 32, the delivery of the tiny house marked the end of an emotional journey born in tragedy.

On Boxing Day 2016, MacKenzie learned that her longtime friend, Jason Peacewind Reum, from Fridley, died aged 26 after a seven-year battle with leukemia. MacKenzie had spent much of his childhood hanging out with Reum in Fridley, where he and his mother, Solita Reum, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, taught him about Native culture and spirituality.

However, because of work and school, the friends had separated during the last year of Reum’s life. “I carried an immense amount of guilt and shame associated with his loss,” MacKenzie said. “I was self-centered and didn’t really understand how limited my time with him was…I felt like I had to do Something in the spotlight [Jason’s] life.”

For a moment, he didn’t know what that something would be.

Then, in early 2020, MacKenzie began noticing an increasing number of people, especially Native Americans, living in tents along the trails on her bike trips through the Twin Cities. He read how Minneapolis city leaders committed tens of millions of dollars — and changed the city’s zoning policies — to spur the development of more affordable housing. Yet MacKenzie estimated that it would take years for this accommodation to appear – too late for the people he saw sleeping in the cold.

“That’s when it hit me,” he said. “Maybe the solution is to create a low-cost alternative by miniaturizing everything.”

MacKenzie threw himself headlong into the task. He quit his job as a union electrician, bought an old Bobcat trailer and started refurbishing it with the help of a friend. Much of the lumber and other materials he scavenged from construction sites or free on Craigslist. The oak wood that covers the water heater in the house comes from an old piano. The windows were donated by MacKenzie’s middle school math teacher. The foam insulation was taken from the roof of an elementary school.

“It was an adventure every step of the way,” he said.

It would take him nine months, 1,400 man-hours — and almost all of his personal savings of $22,000 — to complete the self-contained home. It sat in his driveway for several months before he donated it to the AICDCa not-for-profit organization that operates programs for Indigenous people experiencing homelessness and addictions.

On the morning of the house delivery, MacKenzie carefully placed a plaque dedicated to her friend just above the door. A red recliner that once held Reum’s 6ft 9in frame was carried into the living room – a room that will soon be occupied by someone who needs a place to live.

As a light drizzle fell, Solita Reum was moved to tears as she admired MacKenzie’s work for the first time. “It’s an act of love,” she said. “Nothing else would push someone to do something so hard and so beautiful.”

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