Little houses in the big city
by Janie B. Cheaney
Posted on Monday, September 28, 2015, at 1:54 pm
On a sweltering hot day in July, I gave a man a ride. He was outside the building where I help serve free meals on Wednesday nights, and the story had already got around that somebody stole his wheelchair. “Ma’am, can you help me get to … ?” (a place I didn’t recognize). He was obese, sallow, and breathing like a steam locomotive. I had seen him in his wheelchair at various intersections in town, holding a “Homeless/Hungry” sign. The place he needed to go was the nearest park, a concrete area with fountains and pools. When we got there, other members of his community were relaxing in one of the pools as though it were a backyard hot tub. With many apologies, my passenger got out the car and accepted a few bananas and some cherries—all the groceries I happened to have with me.
I had to wonder if there was something more I could have done. The way he was breathing, he appeared to need medical help.
How to help the homeless? Public solutions fall into three broad categories: emergency shelters, rehab, and housing projects. “The Projects” conjure up images of the dead-end dwellings of Baltimore in The Wire, or the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, but Housing First, proposed in the early 1990s, offers a friendlier vision. The Housing First philosophy is that shelter is a right, not a privilege, and the first order of business is to get the chronically homeless—typically single men with mental or substance-abuse problems—into basic, permanent shelter before working on those problems. Many of its programs come with no demands for residents to clean up their act: Support services are offered, not imposed, and the long-term cost is much less than relying on shelters and hospital emergency rooms. Results may vary, as they say, but the city of Boston officially shut down two emergency shelters in 2010 as a result of offering permanent housing in a refurbished hotel. Utah has reduced its homeless population by 72 percent through a program that draws on the expertise of the Mormon church.
But here’s a new wrinkle: Housing First combined with the current enthusiasm for “tiny houses.” Dallas; Portland, Ore.; and Huntsville, Ala., among other cities, are experimenting with tiny-house communities for the homeless. Most are local government initiatives involving churches and volunteers. Many impose basic ground rules: no alcohol, drugs, or fighting. In Austin, Texas, Alan Graham is proposing a Community First! Village, a planned, privately funded development featuring RVs, tiny homes, and canvas-sided cottages. That’s the housing part; the community part includes a church, garden, workshop, clinic, and more. After years of serving the homeless with a food delivery service called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Graham knows that meeting immediate needs won’t solve the homeless problem. People need purpose, direction, and the sense of shared responsibility that’s natural to families and neighborhoods.
What could I have done to help that man outside the church? Not much by myself, at least not in the long run. “Community first” is a good motto for those who want to help as well as those who need help—coming together around a good idea and working together to make it happen.