A tiny home on wheels
DOVER — Dover Middle School paraeducator Gary Storms probably couldn’t draw more attention to himself if he tried.
You can’t miss the 44-year-old Dover native at his school or while he’s out and about in the community because he drives a mobile home — and no, it’s not the kind you’re picturing, unless you have an affinity for fish houses Frankensteined onto pickup trucks.
"I play the boob a little bit with (students who ask about it)," Gary says with a wry smile. "They’re like, ‘Is that your truck?’ I’m like, ‘Which one?’ ‘The one with the house on it?’ I’m like, ‘Which one?’" Storms laughs before continuing. "Obviously it’s the only one. They’re like, ‘aw, Mr. Storms.’ They always ask (if) I live in it and talk about how awesome it is. I can’t stop for gas or to get groceries without someone stopping me in a parking lot or someone following me home to talk to me about it."
But the attention is a good thing for Gary. He’s trying to use his ingenuity and his ongoing bout with semi-homelessness to show others his truck home may be replicated as a short-term solution for anyone worried about how members of the Seacoast’s homeless community will survive this winter.
"I’d like to help people who have struggled like I did," he says.
Gary has been living out of his tiny home since August 2016. Without the luxury of a suitable place to stay while waiting out the one- to two-year quote the Dover Housing Authority gave him for subsidized housing assistance, Gary took matters into his own hands.
He knows most homeless individuals opt to stay out of sight, but Gary says "to heck with inconspicuous" and instead decided to build something that could offer comfort, safety and quick transportation to different resources and his job.
That led him to devise a 10.4-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide mobile abode complete with a 4-inch foam mattress, an RV furnace, electricity, a water tank, RV fridge, a portable toilet and a porch. In many respects, it looks as if a college student built a dorm room that could also be used for ice fishing.
With it, he’s allowed to stay in certain lots during non-business hours, like the lot at Dover’s train station and at Walmart. He used a Planet Fitness membership to have access to a shower and took advantage of the fact that the Dover wastewater treatment plant allows city residents to empty toilet waste for free (it's $10 for nonresidents). That was Gary's routine from August 2016 to January 2017, which is when his dad allowed him to park the truck at his home in Dover.
Constructing the tiny home drew heavily on the skills and careful eye Gary developed during his diverse work background, which includes time spent building houses, repairing vehicles and throwing clay cups.
He says his home can be replicated for about $700-$1,000, excluding the cost of the truck. Gary acknowledges he had many advantages most homeless individuals don’t have, such as a vehicle to start with, access to salvaged materials, and a place to build the home. That why’s Gary’s in the process of finding someone who will allow him to use their space — ideally somewhere visible like in one of Dover’s mills — to teach homeless individuals how to construct their own versions.
Teaching others how to build and maintain the homes is important to Gary. He feels it will teach them to be self-sufficient, as well as possibly help them work through their homelessness like it did for him.
A woman close to Gary accused him of simple assault in August 2016. He was convicted during a quick district court bench trial, but court records show a jury later overturned the judge’s misdemeanor verdict after Gary appealed the decision at the superior court level. The jury ruled that his accuser's bruises were self-inflicted and her injuries weren’t consistent with the story she told police.
Gary was able to keep his job despite the court proceedings. DMS Principal Kim Lyndes told Seacoast Media Group they didn't impact or influence his ability to work within the school district. However, Gary says having the charges on his record has made it difficult to apply for substitute teaching jobs outside the district, even though the successful appeal also appears on his record.
Gary hasn’t seen his 1-year-old son since this past May because his tiny home isn’t currently considered "stable housing" in the eyes of the court. He also has limited phone calls with his 7-year-old daughter, whom he had during a different marriage, because she and her mother recently moved to Florida. The thought of seeing them again — in addition to counseling, anti-depression medication and a healthy regimen of "Rick and Morty" cartoon episodes — keeps him going.
"Someone told me to be the best father I could be," he says.
In addition to finding a location for his workshop, Gary's immediate focus is to work with city building and fire inspection officials to see what can be done in order for his homes to be considered fully "stable housing."
"What really excites me is the idea of working with someone like minded and passionate (on the tiny homes)," says Gary, who hopes to get his master’s degree so he can become a special education teacher.
His home currently meets Department of Motor Vehicles size and weight dimensions, although Dover officials told Seacoast Media Group they're not sure if it could operate safely in high winds or whether the dwelling meets all electrical codes.
Gary Storms asked anyone interested in learning more about his tiny homes or anyone who wants to help him replicate them for other homeless individuals to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.