The tiny shelters that can

Posted: February 5th, 2016 | Features, News, Top Story | 3 Comments

By María José Durán

Group developing temporary haven for homeless people

For the first time in 16 years, Michael Clark owned four walls and a roof over his head. His tiny shelter had a little window and a door that locked. For Clark — a homeless man in his 40s who is also known as Redd — the 32-square-foot construction felt just like home.

“I could smell the wood, it was fresh wood,” he said.

The shelter was settled Downtown on the sidewalk of 16th Street, in front of a church. The Bishop had given Redd permission to place it there.

On the third night that Redd slept in his tiny home, he was awoken by a policeman knocking on his door. The officer had come to arrest him and the mobile cabin was impounded. Later that day, Lisa Kogan, a teacher and volunteer that helps homeless people in San Diego, bailed him out.

A long line of tents provide inadequate shelter for Downtown’s homeless (Photo by Maria Jose Duran); (inset) “tiny shelters” may soon change that (Courtesy Lisa Kogan)

A long line of tents provide inadequate shelter for Downtown’s homeless (Photo by Maria Jose Duran); (inset) “tiny shelters” may soon change that (Courtesy Lisa Kogan)

No charges have been filed against him, but the tiny shelter is still sitting in a police station.

“I think about it every day,” Redd said. “I miss it.”

Kogan had built the tiny shelter and donated it to Redd.

“I felt responsible for him getting arrested,” Kogan said. “But since then a lot of good things have come out of that.”

A group of citizens, currently under no specific organization or name, plan to create a small village of tiny shelters like the one Redd owned for three nights. Long-time activist Jeeni Criscenzo became interested when she read the story of Redd and Kogan in the newspaper.

“We agreed to get together and then it ended up that we had 10 people at my house,” Criscenzo said. “The energy was so exciting when we started talking about it.”

The group’s goal is to stop talking and take action to alleviate the San Diego homeless crisis.

Nearly 40 volunteers signed up on Jan. 26 to start working on the project. The commissions of logistics, construction, fundraising, legal, and public relations are taking the first steps towards building a village of tiny temporary shelters in Downtown.

The group’s plan includes 10 tiny cabins of 60 to 80 square feet, plumbing for a community bathroom and a garden. Their calculations show that each shelter will cost around $2,000.

The first obstacle that the volunteers found was where to place the village of tiny houses. A homeless man pointed out to Kogan that a lot at 17th Street and Imperial Avenue had already been used with the owner’s permission by a community of homeless people sheltered in tents.

“They tried to keep it very organized, pretty safe, but they had a problem with people coming on to [the property] that weren’t people that should be there,” Criscenzo said.

After that, the police threatened to fine the owner of the lot if the settlement continued, and the community had to leave.

“That’s because [the owner] didn’t know that the property was in a zone pre-approved for building emergency shelters,” Criscenzo said.

Lisa Kogan at the lot where the group plans to settle the tiny shelter community

Lisa Kogan’s tiny shelter idea may get off the ground (Photo by María José Durán)

California law requires cities to determine spaces where emergency shelters can be built without a permit. A housing element regulation approved by the city of San Diego in 2006 designates the lot at 17th Street and Imperial Avenue as a zone where shelters are allowed year-round. However, the municipal code contradicts the city’s Housing Element by requiring a Conditional Use Permit to build emergency shelters in the area.

Katherin Rhodes, a civil engineer and volunteer for the tiny shelters, maintains that despite the municipal code, the shelters could be legally built on the Downtown lot. The group is now in negotiations with the property’s owner, who is willing to let them use it.

“All we need is for Mayor [Kevin] Faulconer to say ‘yes’ to it, but I don’t know if he understands that he can just say ‘yes’ to it,” Rhodes said.

The city’s approach to the unsheltered homeless issue, which has spiked dramatically in the last year, is shifting toward a permanent housing solution.

“I’m grateful for the compassion of those who promote the tiny home concept, but would prefer they support proven solutions to ending homelessness, like Housing First,” Councilmember Todd Gloria said via email.

Housing First is an alternative to transitional housing for homeless people that moves them from the streets into their own apartments, providing services like job placement after they are settled.

Criscenzo believes that there is no political will to help end homelessness.

“They just want them to go away,” the activist said. “If you can get them immediately into permanent shelter, God bless you. Show me how that works, but we don’t have the housing. So we are calling [the tiny shelter village] a ‘meantime’ solution.”

The elderly and women with children will be a top priority for this transitional housing, and while the tiny shelter residents will be made aware that the housing is temporary, Criscenzo emphasized that the occupants need to feel like they aren’t going to be pushed out.

“People would be encouraged that this is a stopping point, this is not forever,” Criscenzo said. “So we would have to bring services to help people. Anything from getting your benefits, to parental training, to getting your credit straightened out, and substance abuse problems.”

For the group of volunteers, their biggest problems will be selecting the occupants and controlling the urge for other homeless people to get into the space.

Michael Clark 'Redd' stands where his tiny shelter used to on 16th Street

Redd had a tiny shelter Kogan provided him impounded by police (Photo by María José Durán)

Last year’s homeless count found 8,742 homeless people in the city of San Diego, 4,156 of them unsheltered. The blocks around the lot where the tiny shelters are proposed to be built feature other shelters, like Father Joe’s, and day centers for homeless people. On a simple walk around the area, more than 30 tents used as makeshift shelters can be counted.

“It’s going to be heartbreaking, but we have to show that we can control this,” Criscenzo said.

The group hopes to create a model that can be replicated in different parts of the city.

To volunteer for the tiny shelter community, send an email to

Donations can also be made through the nonprofit Amikas, specifying “Tiny Shelters” on the subject line, at

—María José Durán is a freelance writer from San Diego. She can be reached at


  1. Rene says:

    I am a resident of Sherman Heights unlike much of the volunteers of this project, and I am NOT in agreement with this plan of a village of tiny houses!

  2. Inez Bradley says:

    No one doubts your organization’s desire to help solve the homeless problem in San Diego. There are so many well intentioned folks that want to help, but we really must look seriously at the reasons for this problem and work together to find permanent, healthy solutions. As a resident of one of the most impacted by the street population, tax-credit low income, apartment properties in downtown, I can attest to the heartbreaking reality of life on the street for the homeless, as well as the attendant effect on those attempting to share the public spaces, such as sidewalks and transit stops, with that population, while living our own economically challenged life, I cannot believe that to continue the “shelter” model is good for either the homeless or for any adjacent community. Like it or not, human nature is such that people who are suffering the tragic circumstance of homelessness, need support, guidance, healthcare, and education, as well as decent permanent housing, to overcome the condition, which cannot be resolved by creating “encampments” that reinforce the perceptions of helplessness, rather than deal straight on with the specific needs listed above. We should not fool ourselves into feelings of being “helpful” so long as the bigger issues persist. We have a city government that is finally coming to terms with the real issues of homelessness, and need to put our talents and efforts into taking substantive action on the “big picture” issues, else, our actions amount to no more than the ineffectual band-aid approach that “transitional housing” has proven to be over the past decades. That approach has contributed to the acceptance of homeless as unavoidable in our society, rather than something to be repaired and, most importantly, prevented. We need a more comprehensive approach, and all hands on deck to achieve it.

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