Shipping containers at the US-Mexico border are converted into homes in Arizona

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PHOENIX – Some shipping containers that once stood on the Arizona border to keep people out are now being converted into tiny homes that welcome people in.

Wholistic Transformation, a faith-based nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona, is using shipping containers from former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s temporary border wall to build tiny homes for youth transitioning out of the foster care system.

Ducey, who assembled thousands of shipping containers last year to create a barrier along the Arizona-Mexico border, has come under pressure from a lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice against Arizona, and Ducey agreed to dismantle the wall in December 2022. The government has claimed that the wall is illegal and dangerous It conflicts with federal duties.

The state said more than 2,000 containers removed from the border are now available to government agencies and nonprofits that can find uses for them. Any remaining by October will be available for public sale, the Arizona Department of Administration said.

Brian Benz, founder and CEO of Wholistic Transformation, said he plans to build a community of seven tiny homes out of shipping containers that will include a resident forensic navigator on two adjacent church lots.

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“It’s about restoring relationships and restoring community,” Benz said at a recent event celebrating a newly purchased shipping container.

Each tiny house will be a one-bedroom home, with a full kitchen, bathroom and washer and dryer, Benz said. Residents will choose what the inside will look like, from the style of the cabinets to the color and fabric of the sofa cushions.

Benz said he was called to start the effort when he learned of the large number of foster youth who become homeless, which often happens within a few years of leaving foster care after turning 18.

Foster care: the highway to homelessness

The foster care system, sometimes referred to as the highway to homelessness, often leaves youth struggling to find stable housing, according to the National Institute on Youth Welfare.

About 20% of youth in care become homeless once they are emancipated at age 18, the institute said. Nationally, half of the homeless population spent their time in foster care.

Annually, 20,000 children will find themselves aging out of foster care, often thrust into the world without a support system or loving family, and losing access to government-provided services, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The reason many foster youth eventually become homeless “is not the same as it is with all other populations,” said Luis De La Cruz, president and CEO of Arizona Friends of Foster Children. “This is not a symptom of a larger problem. It’s not because of their addiction. It’s not necessarily because of their mental health. It’s just that they were in foster care.”

Once young people in foster care reach the age of 18, they can decide to extend their time in care or live independently. If they choose to live alone, they will receive $1,200 per month.

De la Cruz said many of the challenges they face include high rental prices and navigational concerns. This includes not having enough money for a deposit, co-signing a lease, or even the correct documents that landlords may request.

“A lot of times, they need some upfront assets, like a deposit and maybe two months of rent. Maybe they need some credit history, and they don’t have it,” De La Cruz said.

Here comes the role of comprehensive transformation.

Benz said his goal is to create a community of support around residents with the help of a neighborhood church and resident navigator and help residents achieve their goals. Pedro de Velasco, a board member who works with immigrant communities, said using these shipping containers to build community instead of separating people helped convince him to join the board.

“This is a better way to use than what Governor Ducey was using at the time,” he said of the shipping containers.

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Convert shipping containers into tiny homes

The overall transformation work was carried out through volunteer efforts, which the organization will continue to rely on for the remainder of the work.

“We don’t have a lot of money, but we have a lot of committed people. They are willing to help in different areas where their skills and talents are,” Benz said.

Benz said he is looking to raise $12,000 to complete the first shipping container, and each subsequent unit will cost $40,000 to complete. The cost of the entire project is expected to range from $400,000 to $450,000, including one year’s salary for the resident navigator.

Once it’s finished and residents move into their new tiny homes, their rent will cover ongoing expenses.

Benz said the rent will likely be $800 as an initial cost but it will incentivize them to go to school and participate in various courses by lowering the rent depending on what residents do.

Once his project is complete, he hopes this type of tiny home community can be a model for other vulnerable populations affected by housing insecurity, including veterans, seniors, and people released from prison.

“We have to start something,” Benz said. “The need is there, but the need is huge.”

History of the shipping container wall in arizona

What started with just 42 shipping containers in August 2022 evolved into a wall constructed of thousands of 20- and 40-foot metal boxes by the end of last year.

Ducey announced the project last August, just hours before the first containers were stacked on the Arizona-Mexico border, and weeks after the Biden administration announced it planned to fill gaps along the border.

The governor’s administration said the containers were temporary, but were done so while waiting for the Biden administration to act on border security, an issue on which Ducey and other Republican governors have often criticized the Democratic president.

The temporary barrier construction effort is costing Arizona taxpayers more than $200 million in construction, removal and container transportation fees. The money comes from a $335 million Arizona Border Security Fund dedicated to “constructing, managing and maintaining a physical border fence.”

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The Republic’s coverage of southern Arizona is funded in part by a grant from Report for America. Support news coverage of Arizona with a tax-deductible donation at supportjournalism.azcentral.com.

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