Saturday, February 27, 2016

Tiny Houses for the Homeless?

Homlessness is very visible in many neighborhoods of Los Angeles.  This photo shows an improvised shelter in Koreatown.

The Los Angeles Times has recently been running stories about a man named Elvis Summers who has been responding to Los Angeles' homlessness crisis by building tiny houses for homeless people in public rights of way.

Mr. Summers' heart is definitely in the right place, and I will say that he has done more than most people to try to address the problem of people not having proper housing.  That said, I'm also not surprised that the City of LA is cracking down on these unpermitted structures that don't meet code as habitable space and illegally encroach on public rights of way.  The City has every legal right to do so, even though its own efforts to address the problem of homelessness leave much to be desired.

The strategy of building tiny sheds for the homeless illustrates many things.  First, it illustrates how bad it is to live on the street.  The LA Times piece makes it clear that the recipients of these homes are thrilled with them compared to their previous circumstances.  The homes protect them from the sun and the rain and have locking doors, allowing them to secure themselves and their belongings.  While it is true that these homes are not "habitable" as defined by most building codes, you have to compare that to the alternative.  Sidewalks aren't intended for human habitation either.  Second, tiny houses for the homless illustrate how homeless people struggle with legal barriers to their very existence.  Their presence in public spaces is always being challenged by people who don't like seeing, hearing and smelling extreme poverty and panhandling (and honestly, who among us does?) and fear that homeless people are associated with drugs and crime.  Third, tiny houses for the homeless illustrate how hard it is to build housing, especially affordable housing or housing with supportive services the legal way.  Going legit means financing a project for people who cannot pay the full costs of their own housing (i.e. dealing with public and nonprofit sources of funds), acquiring land, complying with zoning and building codes and, last but certainly not least, navigating the rough waters of neighbor opposition.

Homelessness is a complex problem that cannot be boiled down to a single cause.  It involves poverty, unaffordable housing, mental health, drug dependency, domestic violence, and our very culture.  Most people and governments would rather get the homeless out of their face than actually attack the root causes of the problem.  From a moral perspective, this is indefensible.  If we want to call ourselves good people or a just society with a straight face we need to make some changes:
  1. We need to make it easier to build housing with support services for the homeless by streamlining zoning regulations, not concentrating homeless services in one neighborhood that is already overwhelmed (Skid Row), and not giving local neighbors an absolute veto over any homeless shelter or supportive housing project.
  2. We need to increase funding for homeless outreach and housing with support services.  This means we need to raise taxes, cut some other aspect of government spending or increase our private charitable contributions to organizations that are fighting the problem.
  3. We need the State to implement policies that ensure regional equity in dealing with this problem.  The City of Los Angeles carries more than its share of the burden already, and cities that push the homeless out should not be allowed to pretend like this is "someone else's problem."  We all need to be putting money and sites on the table.

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