HOUSING THE HOMELESS


The homeless problem is growing and urgently needs to be addressed, but there has yet to be a satisfactory solution proposed by any local or state government. The discussion of what to do about the homeless invariably centers around mental illness and addiction, which have almost nothing to do with housing itself. A large percentage of the homeless population does suffer from addiction and mental illness, and these factors have certainly led to their current situation, but it is a tremendous task to fix every aspect of their lives and provide them the treatment, care and skills to be productive and find a way to afford housing on their own. If we wait for that solution, we will never accomplish anything, and soon even our nicest towns and cities will be full of tents, trash and people sleeping on the sidewalks. We must look at the problem in the simplest terms; the question is: what is the bare minimum that a homeless person needs to get off the streets and have a chance to succeed? And what is the bare minimum we must do to clean up our cities?


We cannot afford to provide permanent housing for everyone who cannot look after themselves. Even if we could, it would be massively unfair to the lower middle classes of working people who now can barely get by in our overpriced housing market and in the growing divide between rich and poor. At the same time, our society is surely wealthy enough that we do not need to watch our fellow citizens starve or have to sleep and defecate in the bushes. The discussion so far has been hijacked by the idea that we must make these people whole, that we should treat their illnesses and addictions, train them for jobs and reintegrate them into society. At the other extreme there are others who would rather see them jailed or shipped off to the desert for the crime of being homeless. Since neither extreme is likely to be realized anytime soon, I have imagined an emergency fix that attempts to deal with the most urgent problems in a cost-effective way that might actually do some good in the short term.


This project focuses on the following basic human needs:

A. Protection from weather and extreme cold

B. Personal security from violence

C. Security of possessions

D. Toilet, shower and laundry facilities

E. Food storage, preparation and cooking facilities

F. Food, clothing and emergency medical treatment


I am proposing that our local government provide the items A through E above in the form of this Temporary Housing for the Homeless project, with the civic goal of protecting and improving the lives of the non-homeless citizens. The last items F (food, clothing and emergency medical attention) can and probably should be provided by private charity or institutions that already have programs and the desire to help.

I have designed this model temporary housing project as a place to relocate the homeless from out of our parks, streets, doorways and bushes. It is my belief that if the homeless people had a place to securely store their possessions, they would not need to drag everything around in a cart. If they had toilets to use, they would not defecate or urinate near our sidewalks and buildings. If they had bathing facilities and somewhere to wash their clothes, they would stand a fair chance of being able to land a job and improve their fate. If they had adequate shelter and security from violence, they would be less of a burden on our health care system. And if they had a place to go where they are allowed to stay, we could then enforce stricter rules about where they cannot camp.


As a result of our trade imbalance with China, the USA is in possession of hundreds of thousands of steel shipping containers that cannot be filled for a return trip. By design, they are water-tight, stackable and easily moved on trucks and with forklifts. Many of these are in perfect “one-trip” condition and are being sold for very low prices (including delivery), and it is with this knowledge that I have designed a modular housing solution. We have seen many examples of the reuse of these containers, but as housing units, there are a few problems to keep in mind:


1. The containers’ sides, roof and floors cannot simply be cut away. The corrugated steel sheet sides are in fact the vertical load bearing structure, and the top edge beams are very thin and cannot support any weight after the sides are removed. Any openings in the sides must be reinforced with added steel members. Anything but simple openings can become very costly.

2. The containers cannot be stacked any other way except directly on one another. The corner points are the only acceptable load bearing elements and their fixed dimensions do not support any creative stacking options.

3. The containers are uninsulated, unventilated, and can become dangerously hot or cold.

The housing units shown in this proposal are very small and will not present an attractive option to a person who has any other place to go, nor will it increase the number of homeless persons in a community The cost of the construction modifications would be considerably less than the cost to our cities of having the same number of people living on the streets. The amenities in each 7’x7’ room are limited to a few power outlets, a light, a space heater, one operable window, one bed, insulated walls and a locking door. Each ground floor unit will also have a 4’x8’ planter bed outside to allow growing of vegetables or plants. Bike racks and trash cans will be located nearby in the common areas. The design could not be simpler, but the effect would be great. I have estimated that each typical two bedroom unit would cost $2400 for the container and approximately $6500 for the steel modifications, windows, doors and interior improvements, for a total unit cost of less than $4500 per person served. The common rooms, baths, ramps, decks and site work would approximately double that cost per person served, but compared to any other housing solution, this idea is many times cheaper and fully removable with the potential for resale.

Once we have decided that a solution like this is possible and affordable, the only question is: where can we locate this type of housing? Obviously no private property owner or business would want such a concentration of homeless persons anywhere nearby. I also do not believe that this type of housing needs to be located near tourist areas, parks, beaches or downtown business districts. This will be the most difficult and controversial part of implementing this solution, but it is possible to find a space somewhere in every city and unincorporated county where a housing project like this will have the least undesirable impact, such as abandoned industrial areas, vacant lots far from residential areas, or adjacent to freeways or railyards. As a kit of parts with no permanent foundations or site-built construction, the housing units can be relocated if problems arise, and by their temporary nature they can avoid environmental review and planning delays. I have shown proposed layouts that will fit various minimum size lots, but otherwise I do not claim to have solved this problem of location or of total numbers of people served. The community will have to finally decide if something like this is feasible, but it is clear that something needs to be done.


You can download the complete project documents below. Please feel free to print, reproduce or forward this concept to anyone that may be able to use it.