The Future of Poverty and Homelessness: Tiny Houses for LA

Always the first few lines of boxes, or the top left hand corner of the mandatory cover letter: name, phone number, permanent address. Answers so many take as a given, the tedious essentials, simply mere labels. But in 2014 the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that on a single winter night 578,424 people experience homelessness. These half million or so, unable to afford the bare necessities, do not have a permanent address for the job applications necessary to get them off the street. No Home – No Job – No Job – No Home. The cycle of desperation requires a stroke of good luck, a source from outside to pull the switch and change the direction of the system.

A year ago, Elvis Summers launched the GoFundMe campaign Tiny House Huge Purpose, pointing to the fact that, “one of the most basic fundamental necessities in life is shelter […and] it’s becoming much more difficult to stereotype the homeless as just drug addict bums who “chose” to be or “did it to themselves.” In too many ways survival is part of a rigged system that sucks people into a hole nearly impossible to climb back out of. While it is true that some suffer from mental illness or addiction, others are everyday folks who just happened to hit a rough patch.

Irene “Smokie” McGhee, one of the fortunate 37 to receive a tiny house from Summers, told interviewers that she could now begin looking for a job, one less weight off of her shoulders. Similar Housing First programs have been on the rise in recent years as social reformers realize how difficult it can be to do anything without a place to call home. A homeless young man (Kirk) explained to Think Progress,

Trying to find work and being homeless, the biggest problem is that you don’t have anywhere to go home and rest. All the other stresses of not having any money, not having anything good happen to you in the last four or five days, these things weigh very heavily when you’re looking for work.

If it wasn’t hard enough to prepare for an interview, try doing so without a place to rest the night before, a hot shower and clothes you know will help you impress. When the basic necessities aren’t being met, the brain can’t focus on anything else. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs which suggests that if the basic physiological and safety needs are not being met the mind will not be able to focus on achieving any of the upper levels. Another tiny house recipient, Kevin Green, told NPR,

When you’re homeless, your day is consumed with, you know, that you don’t have a place to store your things so you’re walking around carrying all this stuff with you, you know, what can you get accomplished?

Summers Tiny House project is a housing first design with real potential to change the shape of homelessness in LA and across the states. However, from the very beginning, it has faced challenges from the both the city’s people and the government. From eyesores to safety hazards, it seems that as many people who are thrilled by the possibilities are pushing back against it. A spokesperson for LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, said “These structures, some of the materials that were found in some of them, just the thought of folks having some of these things in a space so small, so confined, without the proper insulation, it really does put their lives in danger” (LA Independent). In February the LA Times reported Councilman Curren Price saying, “Police have identified firearms, drug activity going on,” Price said. “A box of plywood is still a box.” Another member of the community called the homes nothing more than outhouses.

To those fortunate enough to have a home, a box of plywood may be just a box or an outhouse, but to those sleeping on dirty streets, or unsafe shelters, a plywood box is a godsend. Not to mention, in recent years the tiny house movement has been growing as people realize that they don’t require as much space as was once believed. If, as the mayor suggests, the problem is with the structural integrity of the buildings themselves, the solution should be building assistance and regulation rather than confiscation. However, the answer from Price looks more like stereotyping and discrimination more than anything else. To further that assessment, LA Times spoke with several community members. Other neighbors pointed to fears for their personal security, claiming the new homes would somehow bring more drugs and violence into the city. It is important to note that these homes are not on residential or commercial city sidewalks, but are tucked away by underpasses, or other area the homeless are already residing.

The current shelter systems in LA are not working. Across the nation families remain on years long waiting lists for affordable housing and assistance. Of course more permanent housing would be preferable, but at the present moment that isn’t possible for the struggling government. Perhaps, rather than fighting against the tiny houses, officials should work with the group to find ways to improve that are in line with housing first movements finding success throughout the country.

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