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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations can also be made through the nonprofit Amikas, specifying “Tiny Shelters” on the subject line, at amikas.org/article/donate.
—María José Durán is a freelance writer from San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com.