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A Little Home, A Little Dignity

02/25/2016

The house I always see is a deep purple and sits on a freeway overpass. Beside the window, there’s a painted military decoration – three stripes of red on a yellow field with a splash of green on either end- and the words “Vietnam Veteran” printed beside. A miniature American flag flutters proudly above the door. It’s an inspiring oddity – a small oasis of comfort suspended by a concrete span over the rushing din of Los Angeles traffic.

These houses are the brainchild of a Los Angeles resident named Elvis Summers, who made headlines last spring by constructing tiny mobile homes for homeless people. It started with one shack for his neighbor, and has since blossomed into a passion project, with thirty seven built so far. For their residents, these diminutive dwellings provide privacy and dignity. We, who have places to rest at the end of the day, often take for granted the ability to retreat, to not interact with other folks, to not be subject to the gaze and judgment of another. While these little dwellings are not a long-term solution to helping people experiencing homeless get off the street, they represent a compassionate step in the right direction.

Bafflingly, the City of Los Angeles thinks otherwise. Having designated them as prohibited “bulky items” which, pursuant to recently-passed City Ordinances, can be confiscated from homeless people without notice, the City has begun confiscating the tiny homes. As of February 25, 2016, they have taken three of the thirty seven dwellings Elvis Summers built by hand, and plan to take seven more by the end of the week. This action is the culmination of a legal fight that has been brewing since August, when the City Council first took up the issue.

The City’s approach to this labor of love by Summers is heavy-handed and backwards policy. Moreover, it is cruel, lazy and cold-hearted. Study after study shows that the most effective way to help people get and stay off the streets is to provide housing first, and offer services through a voluntary, community-based wraparound model. These tiny homes accomplish a part of that goal: they help people feel dignified, not downtrodden.

Mayor Garcetti claims to be an advocate for the housing-first model. In a statement on his website, he praises the legislature for their focus on homelessness issues:

“Solving our homelessness crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, and financial support from the state is essential to getting people off the street and into homes. I know that our partners in the Legislature — under the exceptional leadership of Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León — understand the urgency of this issue, and we are grateful for their support of an expansive housing-first model that aligns with strategies that we know are the most effective at getting people out of cycles of poverty and despair. The sooner we house our most vulnerable population, the faster we can ensure better opportunities and a more stable future for all Angelenos.”

Some people have argued that confiscating the houses is the right step because they are unsanitary and potentially dangerous. This kind of concern-trolling is deeply disingenuous.

While Summers’ tiny houses are certainly not the kind of permanent housing people experiencing homelessness need to get back on their feet, confiscating that shelter and robbing their residents of that modicum of dignity is counterproductive to the broader policy strategy: creating communities of care that treat homeless folks with respect and love. Literally kicking people to the curb, to be exposed to the elements and crimes of opportunity, is the opposite of the compassionate response Mayor Garcetti claims to believe in.

The real reason why the homes are being confiscated is the complaints of landed residents and business owners. In August of last year, Harbor-area Councilman Joe Buscaino summed up his complaints thusly:

“These wooden shacks are not the real estate I’m looking for in my district.”

Home and business owners don’t like homeless people staying near their property. They worry about crime. They also worry about the bottom line: profits and property values. For them, homeless people are a drag on the local economy. As a result, they favor policies which use the police power of the state to forcibly remove poor and desperate people from public land – that is, the use of your and my tax dollars to push the poor out of sight for the benefit of their bank account.

These people are entitled to their opinions, however close-minded and selfish they may be. But when the City of Los Angeles claims it wants to help the poor, when the Mayor assumes the mantle of the benevolent patrician…

“If we can lift up those in need, and pick up those left behind, then we can live up to the best of our ideals.”

… when the government claims it wants to help, and then enacts policies which hurt, and demean, and punish the poor for being poor, and the homeless for being homeless, it reveals a rotten hypocrisy.

If the City of Los Angeles really wants to solve “the homeless problem” as quickly as possible, it must stop devoting resources to destroying what semblance of a life homeless people have managed to scrape together so far. Build the housing! Provide the services! Most of all, realize that the key to these policies working is empathy: providing the forgotten with a community that loves them because they see, behind the mental illness and the addiction and the rough manners, a human being with inherent and inalienable dignity and worth.

There is no universe in which the confiscation of these tiny houses represents a compassionate or empathetic response to homelessness. Shame on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council.

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