Housing is a complex undertaking. For most of human history, housing simply meant shelter, a place we occupied mostly during inclement weather, or at night. Housing was not as permanent, often being discarded for seasonal migrations. Most shelters could be built with wood, stone, earth, and simple tools. As human society has become more mechanical and technological, the homes we live in have become larger and more intricately designed, resulting in luxuries and comforts unimaginable in previous ages. In a short amount of time, large swaths of the world’s population became completely accustomed to life replete with amenities. Those born into this sort of habitat tend to take it for granted, developing high sensitivity to separation from the comforts of home. The bold occasionally set forth on forays into the less comfortable wild, and this is called camping. For the most part, though, humans like their houses.
But what happens when you can’t get housing? One would think that it should never be a problem, given the vast amounts of vacant infrastructure left in the wake of the twentieth century American boom, but it is a problem. A big problem. And those with any wherewithal to do something about the homelessness problem have mostly ignored it.
For those who enjoy the comforts of having a reliable home, it is a very scary to imagine suddenly losing this privilege. Yet for countless Americans, the security of affordable, long term housing is not granted. For many working class Americans, the bottom is falling out, and people who are fairly accustomed to domestic living, through twists of fate and ill fortune, often find themselves completely homeless. The stories of such people are absolutely heartbreaking.
The rising costs and increased competitiveness of rentals across the country is one factor, of course, but another factor is the dissipation of community bonds, which normally act as a buffer to this problem. Nowadays it's common for people to have no one to turn to, no community to fall back on. And as the number of people suddenly falling on hard times increases, the ability of the diminishing majority to lend a hand in support decreases.
The housing crisis in America urgently needs to be addressed. I recently did a tour of the Western US, and I was blown away by what I saw when I drove through Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. Tent cities are everywhere, often right in front of buildings that appear to house businesses. It was such as I’ve never seen, apart from post apocalyptic renderings in films. Not every part of the city looked this way, of course, but large sectors seem to have been let go, with no enforcement of law even being attempted, where throngs of disenfranchised people surround themselves with whatever possessions they have gleaned.
I have on several occasions walked or driven through such territories, but I generally refrain from photographing what I see, not wanting to be disrespectful. It is deeply saddening to see the degree to which this problem has grown, and it stirs in me a desire to help, to design solutions. Surely we can do better than this!
Even beyond the issue of compassion for our fellow man, there’s also the matter of practicality. This is a bloody waste of urban space and human energy. All those people could be doing something useful, like participating in renewal projects, helping to fix up our neighborhoods, or growing food. Instead they are trashing the parks and hustling the streets for handouts.
Permaculture teaches us to turn problems into solutions. Waste is an output that simply has not been connected to whatever element needs it as an input. In nature, all systems flow cyclically and waste does not accumulate. Only in civilization, which flows in a linear fashion, do certain problems arise. In a natural system, no one would be homeless involuntarily. Anyone who wanted could simply go build himself a house, and most indigenous people are born into a tribe that looks out for them. In modern society, even motivated, hard working people are not guaranteed housing.
If homeless people are an unwanted output, we must look then for some other element in the world that is in need of them as an input. Tons of organizations and projects need volunteers, even employees. Utilizing the energy that is represented by so many idle humans for constructive work is clever and practical, though often difficult to pull off.
But that's not to say it can't be done. Denver Day Works, a program that offers day work to the homeless, paying out in cash at the end of the day, is a good example. I first learned of this program a year or two ago, and I saw an interview with some of the people who participated. They felt very empowered by the program, and many of them said that they would certainly rather be working that hanging out on the corners holding signs.
Also in Denver we find another really cool project addressing the homelessness problem. The Colorado Village Collective is a tiny house village for the homeless. With eleven units, each capable of sleeping two, they provide members with the most basic shelter, warmth and electricity. They are truly tiny houses, with no kitchen or bathroom, just space for two bunks and a small desk. But it's a big step for many people.
I traveled through Denver not long ago, so I went out to the Tiny House Village to check it out. I was greeted by Silla, who welcomed me warmly. I didn’t have an appointment, but the oversight was forgiven and I was invited in to talk about the project. Silla was something of a spokesperson for the village, having been there for some time and being willing to engage with curious individuals like myself who come wanting to know the scoop.
The village was created in cooperation with the Interfaith Alliance and Denver Homeless Out Loud, also non-profits. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that over half the money to build the tiny house village was raised through crowd funding. People care, and I imagine that many wish they could do more. They built the units so that they could be moved, which was smart, because already they’ve had to move once. Building the tiny homes was one part of the process, and finding a place to set up the village is another issue. But even though they will probably have to move again, they are confident that the right place will be made available.
For someone who has been living on the streets, getting a unit in a tiny house village is a sweet deal. The residents pay no rent, and the only requirement is that they show up to meetings. Whenever there is an opening, applicants come to a meeting to share their stories. The members later deliberate and arrive at a consensus about who to accept. Naturally, the list of applicants is far longer than spaces available, so it is surely a difficult decision. Even if they built eleven hundred units, they could still probably fill them all within a few days.
Silla told me that another tiny house village was in the process of being built at St. Andrews Episcopal Church. This village was being allocated specifically to trans women, who often have difficulties in shelters which segregate the genders. Silla, being a trans woman, was planning on moving there as soon as it opened.
We had an enjoyable conversation. I learned lots about the project, and got an interesting perspective on life in the streets. Silla had only been homeless for about a year and a half, having moved to Colorado from out of state, knowing no one. We discussed the differences between long term homeless people who are adapted to the lifestyle and recently displaced individuals who must then learn to make do with far fewer securities. One thing Silla really appreciated about having a little house was that she could leave all her stuff to go out and work and not worry about it. When camping in the streets, she had to rely on others to keep an eye on all her possessions, which thankfully, she had some one to do. She told me of her street family, Mama Liz and Papa Roy, who really looked out for her.
Often times people in the streets form up into families, with whom they develop strong family bonds. I saw this during my time in the streets in San Antonio. I was adopted by a street mom who offered me a spot at the camp, right next to the San Antonio River before the Riverwalk was expanded upstream. They all looked out for each other there, and they referred to each other as mom, dad, brother, sister, etc. It says something about the human spirit, and about the innate sense of family that we can not easily stamp out, even when biological bonds are broken.
When I left the Village, I couldn’t help but envision permanent versions being established, only instead of being on blocks in a parking lot, they could be surrounded by gardens and orchards. Many are the hands that long to craft a small space of beauty in which to dwell, and vast are the landscapes in want of human care. The chasm between is that which my work intends to bridge.
It is not just the homeless who long for a home. We all deserve a small space on this earth to call home, to fashion after our own hearts design. I hold this as a fundamental aspect of the human experience, and I know that we who have lost touch with tribe, place and home yearn to get that connection back. Innumerable hearts and souls resonate together in this longing, and I believe that our voices, once joined, can alter the course of history and time, setting right that which has been knocked out of balance. Far from some idealistic vision of Utopia, this is a very practical vision of how six to eight billion sets of hands could quite rapidly transform the shape of reality. Certain problems will likely always be with us, but having a poisoned environment and living in slums or in the streets need not be among them. If things are ever going to get better, it will be up to us to make it so. So here’s calling to you my brothers and sisters, my street family to be….