Can We Help the Homeless?

In the last edition of this newsletter, I wrote about the proliferation of tiny-home villages for those living on the streets. Today, I will be focusing on what it is like to live in one and why there are no easy fixes.

For the past 20 or so years, Punky has been living on the street. Punky, who gave only her street name for this article, has suffered through countless traumas and abuses. This fall, she felt like she had finally reached some kind of breaking point. She was 42 years old, living in a homeless encampment in Los Angeles and couldn’t take the instability of being unsheltered anymore. It was just too much, she told me. “I wanted to settle down.”

A friend had heard that tiny homes were being offered to the homeless and suggested Punky try to get one. In addition to providing a roof and meals, many of the tiny-house villages for the homeless offer services for addiction and mental health as well as help finding employment and permanent housing. That sounded like a good deal. Punky wasn’t thrilled about the idea of living in a tiny house — some people on the streets have taken to calling them “tiny sheds” or even “internment camps for the homeless” — but she thought she could do it if it meant she would end up in a real home eventually.

Punky moved into a village in Highland Park, a neighborhood on Los Angeles’s east side. The food, she said, wasn’t great, and there had been delays in some of the promised amenities, including the key that would lock her door. She also said that some of her belongings had been stolen and that the people running the site had been unresponsive about trying to find the culprit. But she said she was going to stay in the village because she still held out a wary hope that this could be the pathway to her own permanent place. “I’m trying to stay optimistic,” Punky said.

From tiny house to permanent home

A vast majority of the tiny-home villages in Los Angeles, including Punky’s Highland Park site, are run by a nonprofit called Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, which has been working with homeless populations in the city for more than a decade. It began running tiny-home villages this year. The organization’s president, Rowan Vansleve, told me that the idea is to provide a “supermarket of services” that will help everyone from people battling drug addiction and mental health breakdowns to veterans struggling with PTSD to families dealing with severe economic precarity. The goal — shared with Punky — is to move people into permanent homes.

This task, Vansleve said, is often complicated by a variety of factors. It can take time for residents of tiny-home villages to get themselves ready for permanent housing, especially if they are dealing with addiction and mental health problems. While Hope of the Valley does provide counselors and some help, Vansleve says there’s not enough government funding for mental health support, in particular, which in many ways makes it more difficult to get people to a stable enough state to enter permanent housing.

Finding affordable housing in Los Angeles is its own challenge. Given the lack of public housing options, Hope of the Valley staff members scour apartment listings and then try to persuade landlords to allow formerly homeless people to occupy their units, sometimes at reduced rates. This task, according to Vansleve, is as arduous and thankless as it sounds. The fastest anyone has gone from entry into a tiny-home village to permanent housing has been two and a half months, but that was unusual.

“There’s absolutely not enough housing,” Vansleve said. “It is coming, but it’s expensive to build and it’s a slow process, and even then, there’s still not going to be enough of it.” Hope of the Valley sees tiny-home villages as a bridge that can at least get people off the streets while the city and the state try to address the crisis. “One of our mottos,” Vansleve said, “is that the streets shouldn’t be the waiting room for permanent housing.”

Since the tiny-homes project is relatively new, it’s difficult to gauge the average time someone has to stay there, which brings up a discomforting question: Given the lack of permanent housing stock, will these tiny homes become just a permanent form of shelter?

Village life

The day before Thanksgiving, I went out to a Pallet shelter site in Oakland. Dozens of sturdy, white tiny homes had been built on an empty lot along with a few outbuildings for service offices and bathrooms. A chain-link fence surrounded the structures and included entrances secured with a modern security system. The pathways inside the village were well swept and orderly; the structures looked new and a bit, although not exceedingly, utilitarian. There was no sign to indicate what all this was; if you were walking by, you might just assume it was a construction site with an unusual amount of temporary outbuildings.

The grounds appeared to be almost completely empty, which the Pallet representative said was pretty normal. Some of the people who live here work during the day and others go out to see their friends and family.

While I was there, an elderly woman stood in front of the fence and held up a picket sign that read “Honk for Peace.” She said her name was Assata Olugbala. (Assata Olugbala Shakur was a former Black Liberation Army leader who escaped to Cuba after being convicted of the murder of a police officer and whose writings have been chanted at Black Lives Matter protests across the country.)

This Assata is a fixture at Oakland City Council meetings, where she speaks on everything from Colin Kaepernick to the city’s public library system. Accompanying her was Nino Parker, another well-known face in Bay Area homeless circles. Olugbala and Parker told me that some of the units in the village had been offered to people who did not live in the nearby encampment and that an initial promise — that the tiny-home village would be exclusively for the people who lived in the surrounding area — had been violated.

Kevin Cockerham, a site manager at the village and a peer counselor for the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, wouldn’t comment on Olugbala and Parker’s claims. He did say that after two and a half weeks, the village had 25 residents in 54 single units and a list of 80 people from the nearby unhoused communities who had expressed interest. Part of the work, Cockerham said, was tracking down those people to tell them they now had a place to stay.

In what remained of the nearby tent encampment, some residents huddled around a smoking charcoal grill. A middle-aged woman named Victoria was handing out meals from the trunk of her car. “I stay around here,” she told me. “And I always think this could be me.” From where Victoria and I were standing, we could see the vast, green expanses surrounding the Alameda County Courthouse, where the Black Panthers held their famed “Free Huey” rally in 1968 after the arrest of one of its founders, Huey P. Newton.

All this is history, I guess. But it’s not hard to see how what happened around this site in the past informs the encampment that’s here today. The Panthers, for example, gave out free breakfast to disadvantaged children in Oakland and provided social services in the city in the 1960s and ’70s before they were violently repressed. In the ’80s, during the Reagan years, public housing was stripped away. And over the past decades, thousands of poor people have been processed through that courthouse into incarceration, many of whom have eventually found themselves living on the streets. Standing by an encampment makes you aware of these narratives, but I’m not sure what knowing all that does for any of the people who live in the tents.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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