By Ivan Adame, RLn Contributor
Homelessness is one of those intractable problems that requires bold action rather than words. That’s the main takeaway from the controversial Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council meeting that took place Aug. 11.
During that meeting, the council voted unanimously to turn its ad hoc committee on homelessness into a standing committee and allow it to move forward with the Tiny Houses project in San Pedro.
Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council President James Allen said that the council support for the Tiny Houses project didn’t involve financial or any other material support, but rather it was a statement of moral support for the homes and the search for a suitable location for them other than on city streets.
The tiny houses on wheels, built by the charity Helping the Homeless In Need in San Pedro, exist on legally ambiguous grounds. On one hand, the Harbor Division of the Los Angeles Police Department says the structures, which are about the size of a small car, are illegal on public streets. Yet, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office has not yet spoken on the legality of the structures. Proponents argue that the tiny houses on wheels, like motor vehicles, can stay in one location for 72 hours before having to move again.
In his written motion to the Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee, 15th District City Councilman Joe Buscaino requested from the city attorney “to report on the legality of the placement of such structures in both the public right-of-way and on private property, and recommend removal protocol for city departments to follow.”
Up until the emergence of the tiny houses, there was no action locally or otherwise on providing transitional housing for people who are on the verge of attaining permanent housing.
During the meeting, Karen Ceaser, head of Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council’s homeless committee, said that even under the best circumstances, it still takes several months to make the transition from living on the streets to living in permanent housing.
Ceaser points out that the majority of homeless people on the streets have already been reached by the agencies in town—such as Harbor Interfaith Services and the Department of Mental Health—and registered into a coordinated entry system that matches them with a home.
“Just because the form gets filled out for them, [permanent housing solutions] doesn’t happen overnight,” Ceaser explained. “These tiny houses we’ve been building [are] merely transitional housing. It’s just us trying to provide them that temporary housing so they don’t have to live on the street. It will be turned over once they go to permanent housing.”
The only other solution that’s been offered has been Council District 15’s order of homeless sweeps and bulky item clean-ups. The people who were swept away tended to return a few days later.
Meanwhile, the tiny houses, a step in the direction of creating transitional housing, had already come to the attention of area residents the previous week, following social media postings about them and their occupants near the San Pedro Post Office on Beacon Street, which generated hundreds of comments ranging from concerned to vitriolic. Volunteers working with Helping the Homeless In Need have reported being pelted with rocks by assailants because of their work.
The comments at the neighborhood council meeting largely mirrored the comments on Facebook.
One public commenter called San Pedro “a haven for druggies, thieves and ne’er- do-wells that have no interest in seeking public assistance…” and blamed them for the increasing crime rates.
“You are not helping them [by] putting these tiny houses out,” someone wrote.
Another person wrote that, “A large majority of them…don’t care. They get everything for free, so why get a job? Everything comes to them for free.”
Ceaser said she had been working with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s policy director on homelessness, Greg Spiegel, since before the Aug. 11 meeting.
“He is going to propose to them that this be looked at as an interim innovative project throughout the City of Los Angeles,” Ceaser said.
However, San Pedro is not the only place the tiny homes have been popping up. The tiny structures have been popping up around downtown Los Angeles, as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Elvis Summers, the 38-year-old founder of the charity Starting Human, has been building these tiny homes for the homeless in South East Los Angeles.
He built his first tiny home for his neighbor, a 61-year-old Irene McGhee, who was sleeping in the dirt. The home is complete with a door and a lock. A time-lapsed video of the creation of the home went viral on social media and has led to more than $84,000 in private donations on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe to fund more tiny shelters.
Ceaser invited Summers to the homeless committee meeting late July, where he gave a presentation.
Inspired by the presentation, homeless advocates, Helping the Homeless In Need, along with Ceaser, formed a team to build a tiny home for a local homeless person. Since then, they have spent every weekend building new homes for those in need.
Nora Vela of Helping the Homeless In Need said that the first recipient of the tiny home in San Pedro has already transitioned into permanent housing.
The second person to receive a tiny home is Francis, a 61-year-old woman who lives with her West Highland White Terrier named Scottie. She has applied for housing two years ago and is now seeking approval for a Section 8 voucher.
“They figured that I needed it,” Francis said. “I did need it. It’s scary out there when you’re a lady. It’s a godsend. I can put my blankets on the floor. When you lay on the cement, it’s bad for you. I have a sciatic nerve and two bad discs in my back. Cement drains you.”
Despite the public backlash, the very presence of the tiny homes is spurring action on the issue.
A community forum on homelessness is scheduled for Sept. 3, at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.