Opposition Mounts over Los Angeles Seizure of Tiny Homes for the Homeless

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April 1, 2016 · Posted in Commentary 
One of Elvis Summers' tiny houses, taken from a homeless man on the 42nd Street bridge over the Harbor Freeway.

One of Elvis Summers’ tiny houses, taken from a homeless man on the 42nd Street bridge over the Harbor Freeway.

Leslie Evans

Seizure by city workers of three Tiny Houses from homeless people February 12 has led to an outpouring of protest, ranging from the prestigious Los Angeles Times to a demonstration at City Hall and a lawsuit filed in the federal U.S. District Court, as well as widespread support for the Tiny House efforts by a wide range of homeless activists and their supporters.

There can be little question that if you are living under a tarp that one of these 6X10 foot wooden shed-type structures, with a lock on the door and solar panel for electricity, is a huge improvement. To date, 37 of them have been built, at a cost in materials of $1200 each, by Elvis Summers. He has raised more than $100,000 for the project from a GoFundMe appeal, and has distributed them over a wide area, from Van Nuys to Compton and Inglewood.

The city government has insisted that the little houses are not needed because it plans to construct housing for all of the homeless in the county. Those plans, however, lie in a vague future at least ten years away and to even get on the drawing board are dependent on passing multiple ballot measures that require a two-thirds majority and may not even be scheduled for a vote before the spring of 2017. That does nothing for someone living on the streets now.

Officials also point to the 500 homeless that they have housed over the last 18 months, which leaves 30,500 of the county’s homeless living on the streets. Another offer is the shelter system. While there are some openings, these are short-term, putting those who accept them back on the streets. They are reportedly bug-infested barracks where theft and violence are prevalent and accommodations consist of a cot in a giant room filled with them. Many require that the resident leave during the day, there is zero privacy, all possessions to be safe need to be kept on one’s person at all times. Many demand cold turkey break from alcohol or drugs, and require participation in religious indoctrination. In addition to these disincentives some homeless people have dogs, which are not allowed in the shelters.

 What Happened to the People Whose Little Houses were Taken Away

The lawsuit claims that people’s health was endangered by expelling them from the little houses. Some were also arrested on charges of having stolen shopping carts. Carl Mitchell, 62, has severe diabetes with open wounds in his legs. He lost his little house, was arrested, and put back on the streets at night when it was 40 degrees, without his medication. Judy Coleman, one of the litigants in the lawsuit, also had her little house taken and was arrested for having a stolen shopping cart. She was released February 14 without her diabetic medication and ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.

The LA Times ran a March 10 editorial headed, “If the homeless can’t have their tiny houses, what can they have?” The editors declared of the city’s plans that they “will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and years of study and review to implement. . .  And while tiny housing dotting a sidewalk might not have been the safest alternative, nor a real substitute for permanent housing, they, at least, offered an interim solution. And interim solutions are crucial. It’s not enough to decry the existence of people living on streets and in parks throughout the area and crammed like war refugees on the sidewalks of Skid Row while the city and county work on their long-term plans.” They added: “Instead of simply saying ‘no’ to tiny houses, the city should take a good look at where and how they might work.”

 “A tiny roof over one’s head is better than none.”

Along these lines the newspaper ran a March 20 Op-Ed under the title “A tiny roof over one’s head is better than none.” There, architecture critic Mimi Zeiger writes, “in the face of an unabating housing crisis, tiny houses could be part of a system that supports rather than criminalizes those who fall in homelessness.” She points to tiny house villages for the homeless that have operated well in other cities for years. She mentions Dignity Village in Portland and Square One Village in Eugene, Oregon. There are nine more in other cities and still more on the drawing board. These villages are mostly set up on public land and provided with public toilets and showers. They typically cost $2,500 each. And they get the little houses off the sidewalks. “What the village lacks in plumbing,” Zeiger writes, “it makes up in safety and humanity – values currently missing from L.A.’s crackdown on those living on the street.”

She reminds us that Los Angeles once had such a tiny town for the homeless, Dome Village, led by Ted Hayes. This little community of tiny geodesic dome huts was founded in 1993 and ran well until it closed in 2006 when land rents became too high.

As for where to get the $1.85 billion to pay for ten years of construction of tiny apartments for the homeless, one thought is to take it from MTA planned transit expansion. The MTA is asking for $120 billion, 65 times more than the supposedly unreachable budget to tackle homeless housing. The huge appropriation is to cover new rail and subway lines and some additions to bus and bike lanes. The $120 billion dwarfs the $15 billion already spent, while the March 20 American Interest points out that there are 10% fewer boardings on the Los Angeles MTA system than in 2006, “and that the decline was accelerating.” Los Angeles is too large and spread out to ever get most of its people to ride mass transit, unlike older compact cities like New York and Chicago. So maybe the MTA project should be scaled back a little – one or two 64ths? – to help solve a genuine humanitarian crisis.



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