A group of homeless advocates has unveiled examples of a long-brewing plan to create extremely low-cost emergency housing as a temporary remedy while longer term solutions to regional homelessness are sought.
"We've been trying to get people housed for nine years, and it just keeps getting harder, said Jeeni Criscenzo, founder of the women-and-children-focused homeless advocacy group Amikas. "We need somewhere for them to go in the meantime, somewhere safe where they at least can go inside and have a door that locks."
At its simplest, that's what Amikas has in mind — four walls, a roof, and a solid door to lock out would-be predators who make life on the street hard for some of the most at-risk homeless population.
"Right now we have very vulnerable people living on sidewalks — women, children, elderly, and disabled, who are being traumatized by life on the streets," said Criscenzo.
Adds Amikas boardmember and real estate attorney Shanna Welsh-Levin, "There are a lot of unique aspects to the difficulties that homeless women and children face. You don't see them or the problems they're facing on the street; they often resort to 'safer' shelter," she says, alluding to women who remain in abusive relationships or find themselves forced into prostitution in order to retain shelter.
The simple wood structures, designed based around framing kits Criscenzo says were designed by an executive behind the opening of Ikea stores across North America, can reportedly be assembled by a volunteer crew using tools no more complex than an electric screwdriver. Costs range from $1400 for an 8' by 8' shelter to $1900 for a 12' by 12' unit that could sleep a small family.
"The beauty of these cabins is that they're so mobile — we could take them and set them up anywhere we get permission, bring in portable toilets and showers, set up a common area for residents to have meetings or cook dinner," said Criscenzo, noting that the community has been largely receptive to the idea.
"What's been happening is amazing. As we've been building these examples, people have been coming by, most of whom live in the community and are curious. I haven't had one person yet who was confrontational about it."
Still, the shelters aren't exactly legal. Trial projects in the past have resulted in San Diego police impounding shelters and arresting occupants.
"In California, people are not allowed to sleep in a camping cabin," Criscenzo explained. "But this is a whole lot better than a tent, and we have so many people who are sleeping in tents, so why can't they sleep in one of these?"
Criscenzo refers to what she calls the San Jose solution as a way around existing laws. Last year, the state granted a five-year pilot program allowing the Bay Area city to experiment with communities of the type she describes on city-owned lots.
The hope is for San Diego officials to petition for the same type of program. Criscenzo and Welsh-Levin say they've received overwhelmingly positive feedback from city councilmembers.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has reportedly already signed on to present such an amendment in Sacramento, though it's unclear whether a measure will make it onto this year's docket for enactment in 2018. San Jose's program passed last year with unanimous support.
"The current Shelter Crisis Act doesn't require the amendment in order to make these legal, so the city council could potentially do it on their own," notes Welsh-Levin. "But we feel it's better to have it written out and approved by the state."
Amikas' Very Affordable Housing Expo runs through March 26, with model homes on display and several presentations planned outside St. Luke Episcopal Church in North Park. While implementation plans have not yet been finalized, Criscenzo remains hopeful.
"I think we're reaching the tipping point where people are realizing we have to have something better than tents and tarps on a sidewalk."