As multigenerational housing grows, it might give Utah a way to combat homelessness
Phylicia Townsend was determined to find a place for her and her 15-year-old daughter Cambria after living in a car for a month. The two left their Davis County home, escaping what Townsend called an abusive relationship.
Townsend’s mother Theresa Bellucci had been sleeping in a separate car after she said family members kicked her out.
Now the three generations of women and their two cats share a 30-foot RV just steps away from a deck overlooking the Provo River.
A baby blue couch and small rocking chair on a matching color carpet provides a welcoming atmosphere inside the trailer.
“We'll be able to save money. There's a few things that would help. And I just think that's the transportation and looking into ways to cut down that cost” said Townsend, who commutes to Salt Lake City for work.
Bellucci added, “I think I'll let her have my car. That way … it's a lot better on gas.”
Nationally, four times more Americans are living in multigenerational households than were 50 years ago. When the Pew Research Center surveyed adults in this kind of living arrangement, they found 40% of them said finances were the main reason — followed by caregiving for an adult or a child in the family.
“I think our plan for the future is maybe eliminating some of our stuff and sell it — obviously keeping the stuff that has sentimental value. But yeah, we're learning to live with a lot less,” Townsend said.
They both said space in the current arrangement hasn't become an issue for them — yet.
"No. Just Phylicia hogs the bed," laughed Bellucci.
"It's not so crowded or anything like that, because — yeah, we ain't got all the furniture and stuff that we had from our residence," added Townsend.
A Salt Lake City nonprofit, the Nomad Alliance, gifted Townsend the donated RV in May. Once Townsend got the green light to move in, she welcomed her mom to stay with them. A typical day for Belluci involves a morning cup of coffee, taking her dog for a walk and helping to keep the RV tidy.
"I make sure everybody's prepared so they can go out there and face the world, because I don't want to," Bellucci said.
Aside from all three having to share the bed, Townsend said the pros outweigh the cons.
Likewise, Pew found that 30% of adults are pleased with their living arrangements.
"Overall, a majority of people in multigenerational households say that it's been a positive experience for them," said Juliana Horowitz, Pew’s associate director of research. "It does help them financially, and it's a convenient arrangement for them."
On the flip side, 23% say it's stressful either most or all of the time.
While the study didn't look at multigenerational households as a form of escaping homelessness, Horowitz said people sharing a home with relatives or loved ones does keep some people out of poverty.
"We see [that] especially for groups that tend to be more economically vulnerable, so Black and Hispanic adults and also older adults, adults with disability, that are far less likely than their counterparts who are not in multigenerational households to be out of poverty."
Homeless advocates in Utah County think this might be one solution to homelessness.
Neither the city of Provo nor Utah County operates an overnight shelter. So motel vouchers are a way advocates help people avoid sleeping on the streets.
Community strategy director at Community Action Services and Foodbank, Jessica Miller, said last year, they provided 377 vouchers to Provo residents. However, she said those vouchers should be a last resort. They encourage those who can to consider moving in with a relative or loved one.
“It really is a less traumatic way for a family, especially if there's children, to kind of get through that initial temporary situation until they can get back on their feet," said Miller.
Diverting someone away from a shelter is easier said than done. Just because a loved one may appear to have space in their home doesn't mean they can afford it.
"It's not necessarily a very easy thing for them to take on more people in their household, whether it's the increased cost of food, the increased cost of utilities, whether it's they have a lease themselves that means if they have additional people stay with them, that they themselves could get evicted," Miller said.
Local government officials appear to be all ears on the issues.
During May work session meetings, Provo City Council has opened the floor to discussion from Community Action and other partnering agencies in Utah County about the financial barriers to affordable housing and zoning laws.
On May 2, Miller told the council that Community Action doesn't have the funding to compensate host families.
Whether or not the city would allocate money to this solution has yet to be seen. But council members and advocates plan to continue the conversation in future meetings.
Meanwhile, Townsend, her mother and daughter, are adjusting to their living arrangement.
Townsend and Bellucci said they’ll stick together when they find a more permanent residence — no matter what.
"If I can help my kids and my grandkids do good in life — why not? I'll do the laundry and do their dishes. But, you know, I will not pick up after them," said Bellucci with a chuckle.
Townsend said her mom is getting up in age. She wants her to relax and enjoy her days without the stress of figuring out where she is going to sleep at night.