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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Solving the Homeless Crisis - Housing-4-All

by Rev. Cynthia

It is my opinion that one of the biggest challenges we face in getting folks housed simply has to do with the terminology of the word “homeless.” Instead of viewing the experience of homelessness as a self-inflicted state of being, it is critical to see that in most cases people become un-housed due to an economic crisis beyond their control.

In order for the general population to feel compassion toward someone who is experiencing homelessness, it is important that they not see the person as “other” or worse, “demonize” them. As a result, it would be helpful to stop referring to folks as “homeless” and see them rather as being “Internally Displaced.” This is a United Nations term for people who are refugees in their own countries. Natural Disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or tsunamis; Manmade Disasters like war; and Economic Disasters causing poverty can all create homelessness and should be responded to with emergency relief action. Once communities and governments start thinking in terms of what services and human rights are necessary for refugees, then perhaps we can see a shift in how this crisis is addressed and solved.

Earlier this year, Sacramento (California) Mayor Kevin Johnson, was cited with U.N. human rights violations concerning not providing clean drinking water and sanitation for his city’s homeless population. As a result, the wheels are now in motion concerning United Nations involvement.

As an example of what a difference terminology and the subsequent mindset can make in how a community responds to homelessness, it is helpful to take a look back in history to the 1906 SanFrancisco earthquake: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1906_San_Francisco_earthquake . Fires resulted, which then burned much of the city to the ground. Initially, those who were displaced were sheltered in tents. Ultimately, the Department of Lands & Buildings of the Relief Corporation stepped in to build 5,610 cottages, which housed over 16,000 San Franciscans in 11 refugee camps in various parks and public squares.

San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Jefferson Square refugee camp (circa April 1906)
Picture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Union carpenters then built small cottages with cedar-shingle roofs, fir floors, and redwood walls. The buildings were all painted green so as to better blend in with the natural settings.

Refugee camp #25 in the Richmond District, occupying what is now Park Presidio Boulevard.
Picture Courtesy of Bancroft Library

Tenants paid $2. a month toward the $50. cost of building the small houses. Then in August of 1907, refugees hauled their cottages to private lots. Within 16 months of the disaster and resulting homelessness, the issue of how to house folks was solved. No “10 Year Plan” needed!

Many people who are un-housed have incomes in the form of employment, Social Security disability, retirement benefits, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or unemployment benefits. It should be relatively simple to set up sliding fee scale campgrounds for tents and RVs, which could then create a base for building small cottage communities. These newly created neighborhoods would not look like refugee camps, but rather they could be intentionally designed sustainable model environments, which would blend in with the rest of the town or city, such as architect Ross Chapin’s “Pocket Neighborhoods.”
His Greenwood Avenue project was “a joint venture with the Cottage Company and was developed under the City of Shoreline's (Washington state) new Cottage Housing Development (CHD) code. The cottages range in size from 768 to 998 square feet.” ~ http://rosschapin.com/Projects/PocketNeighborhoods/GreenwoodAveCottages/GAC.html

Whether you live in a city or out in the country, if you are about to become un-housed or are trying to get re-housed, you might want to think in terms of making a shift to "Tiny Houses." For great ideas, check out this documentary by Kirsten Dirksen "We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats, & Wee Shelters:"

Cynthia Rae Eastman © May 25, 2012