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Confrontation and conspiracy on the frontline with LA’s tiny house activists

When he found himself homeless after a break-up, Bud Stratford’s experiences turned him into a homelessness activist. Volunteering as INSP’s LA correspondent, he recently covered the latest in a long line of confrontations between the city’s well-known Tiny House builder Elvis Summers and the authorities. He found city officials very resistant to the tiny house movement sweeping across the US – and competing explanations for why that is. This article is the second in his two-part series – read part one here.

 

By Bud Stratford

On 18 March, I went to Los Angeles to attend a homeless rights protest on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. The protest itself was scheduled to run between 11:30am and 2pm. But the city council, represented by city councilman Curren Price, scheduled a pre-emptive news conference for 9:30am on the very same steps.

That press conference became the defining moment of my day. It was an unfortunately enlightening experience. My experience with my government is fairly non-existent, outside of paying the occasional parking ticket. My experience with press conferences is even less existent. So, I basically had no idea what to expect at all.

But in my mind’s eye, I was pretty hopeful. I assumed that I would be able to talk to this guy and get The City’s perspective on this whole dilemma of tiny homes for the homeless, and what The City could do to work with all parties involved.

How wrong I was…

 

The News Conference

The news conference was interesting. All of the “bigger media players” seemed to be present. I saw reporters there from the local Fox affiliate, as well as The Los Angeles Times. There was a small horde of cameramen and photographers. There was myself, representing INSP, based in Glasgow, UK. There were also a handful of “homeless activists”: allies of Elvis Summers, the homeless-house builder. And then, just before the news conference started, Elvis Summers arrived on cue, with his trademark bright-red-dyed mohawk, and a dapper black suit. The crowd immediately rushed toward him. He was clearly The Rock Star of The Moment.

I’m pretty sure that made Curren Price none too happy.

Curren Price makes his statement. Photo: Bud Stratford

The Curren Price Initiative

The news conference started with Curren Price front and center behind the podium, and a large number of his entourage standing behind. Included were homeless advocates, city bureaucrats, and a small handful of homeless people, including a mother, and her young daughter.

The theme of the press conference was pretty straightforward: tiny houses for the homeless are not an admirable, or even acceptable, option for the city’s homeless. Instead, it was up to the city bureaucrats to solve the homeless dilemma. Apparently, it’s always been up to the city bureaucrats to solve this dilemma.

 

The Conspiracy Theory

Somebody brought up a great question to me, as I stood there listening to Curren Price speak: “If the city is so determined to solve the problem, then why haven’t they done anything meaningful to address the problem, until today?”

That’s a great question. I wouldn’t know.

“Well, I do,” said my mystery source.

Okay. What is it then?

“They’re making money off the homeless.”

How so?

“By being well-paid city bureaucrats that make their living off of ‘helping the homeless’. It’s in their better interests to make sure that the homeless stay on the streets, where they’re highly visible. So that the problem looks even worse, so they get even more funding to ‘fix’ the problem. But, they can’t actually solve the problem. Because if they actually solved the problem, they’d be out of a job.”

Homeless people sleeping just a few blocks away from the press conference. Photo: Bud Stratford

The Details

Curren Price and his entourage made a big deal out of the piles of money that they’ve “adopted a plan” to spend, attempting to solve the homeless problem in Los Angeles. “The Adopted Plan” is a $2 billion strategy, plus another $30 million to provide “outreach, coordination, showers, storage and other services”. Price pledged another $300,000 to “intensive outreach” in his own district.

Thus far, that money has paid for the following results: 120 shelter referrals and placements; it has provided 210 people with “direct services and transportation”; and, it has referred 41 others to “mental health and medical services”. Veronica Lewis of SSG/Hopics, an outreach agency, said that another 100 people had found homes through city- and county-funded programs in the last 18 months.

The city has “adopted” $2,030,300,000, and has “helped” up to 471 homeless people, in vague and undefined ways, with that money thus far.

The LA Times noted that “the number of people housed in Price’s district was not available”. But what the LA Times didn’t tell us was how easy it is to find good, solid estimates regarding those numbers.

 

The Numbers

Thankfully, I have a smart phone that can readily access Google from any place on the planet, at any time I want. Had Curren Price wanted to access the homeless numbers for his district, as well as for the metropolis at large, he could have gone to www.laalmanac.com and seen the numbers for himself.

In the Los Angeles Metropolitan area, there are approximately 82,000 homeless people on the streets on any given night. 12,356 of those are classified as “chronically homeless”.

Politifact (www.politifact.com) reports that, according to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, “it costs [taxpayers]… about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets”. If he’s right, then Los Angeles taxpayers are spending $40,000 per year each for 82,000 people to be homeless – a grand sum of $3,280,000,000 per year.

Elvis spends about $2,500 on each homeless house he builds. He could house the city’s 82,000 homeless people for about $205,000,000.

 

The Former Teacher

One of the most vocal speakers at the press conference was June Richard, a former teacher at LAUSD in Los Angeles.

“Your houses are not a solution to the homeless problem in Los Angeles!” she seethed at Elvis and his supporters. Her argument was that these houses are unsafe for the city. The homeless people that inhabit them, can (and according to June, do) use them as a convenient cover for drug use and prostitution. The houses take up space on the sidewalks that force children to walk on the streets, which is unsafe for the kids. Homeless people leave their sewage and trash everywhere, making the neighbourhood an eyesore.

Tiny house critic June Richard is interviewed. Photo: Bud Stratford

I had the chance to talk to Elvis later, regarding June Richard’s assertions. He does not disagree with anything that June Richard said at the press conference.

The streets are no place for homeless houses, he agrees. The houses certainly could be used to house all sorts of illicit activities (although he does disagree in regards to how often this actually happens). They do pose an obstacle for pedestrians walking the sidewalks. The trash is an obvious problem… although the homeless cannot be held accountable for all of the trash on LA’s streets.

Elvis noted that when the police came to impound the tiny houses as “bulk trash” and removed them from the city sidewalks, they left behind the trash that was inside the houses, as well as all of the trash that was surrounding them.

“The issue…” he shouted over his mega phone, “is about shelter! People need shelter! And my houses give them a safe, secure place to sleep at night!”

 

The Man in the Electric Blue Suit

Although Curren Price was not available to answer questions after the news conference… and neither was his handler (who I’ll always remember as The Man in the Electric Blue Suit) the rest of his entourage milled around for a while after the conference, networking, taking advantage of photo ops, and generally schmoozing up a storm.

I had the chance to ask many of them if they’ve ever slept in one of Elvis’ tiny houses. They all looked at me a little strangely and advised me that, no, they certainly hadn’t. And they certainly would not.

One of the things that I really wanted to do while I was in Los Angeles, was to sleep in an “Elvis Summers Homeless House” for myself. Unfortunately, this was not a possibility this weekend. Of the 37 houses that Elvis and his volunteers have built, three were impounded by the city, and are currently in gated in secure storage at an undisclosed location (out of fear of Elvis finding them, and stealing them back, I presume), awaiting a change in city ordinances that would allow for the city to permanently destroy them.

Of the remaining 34 houses, eight more are in storage at a similarly undisclosed location (out of fear of the city finding them and stealing them from Elvis, I presume), along with the personal effects of their former residents. The remaining 26 houses are unaccounted for. Hopefully, they’re doing their intended job somewhere in Los Angeles.

Though I was not able to sleep in an “Elvis Summers Homeless House”, I did spend a month of homelessness sleeping in my micro-camper – essentially a tiny house on wheels. Like Elvis’ tiny homeless houses, it was cheap enough to build – it cost almost exactly the same $2500 that it costs Elvis to build one of his tiny houses. It’s similarly equipped with only the very basics required for a sound night’s sleep: a roof; a (locking) door; a ventilated skylight; a mattress; and some bedding.

I still sleep in it on a regular basis. Sometimes, even with my girlfriend. I can do that legally because when you call that activity “camping”, it is legal in many, many places. Which sort of opens a door, doesn’t it, to solving the homeless problem? At least, on a temporary basis?

Elvis Summers meets supporters. Photo: Bud Stratford

Homeless Houses, Homeless Approved

Immediately after the news conference concluded, the homeless lady that had spent the entirety of the news conference to Curren Price’s immediate left came running up to me, with her little daughter in tow, and promptly asked me how she could sign up on the waiting list to get her own tiny house. I was a little dumbfounded. For one, I had no idea that there was a waiting list for tiny houses. And secondly, I had naturally assumed that she was a supporter of Curren Price. Not Elvis Summers.

“Oh, no. I love what Elvis is doing. I’m homeless. So I really want to get on the waiting list.”

If you don’t mind me asking, how did you end up on the podium today with Mr Price?

“Somebody just asked me to show up and stand there. So, I did. But I was really hoping to talk to Elvis.”

Elvis, as it turned out, did have a volunteer at City Hall, taking names for their waiting list of homeless people that want tiny houses of their own. A few hours later, I checked back in with her to see how she was doing. She had a very long list of names in her hand.

How do you find these people that are on the waiting list? Aren’t they a little difficult to track down?

“Oh, they’re easy to find! Most of them have ‘Obama Phones’.” [The Obama Phone program gives struggling low income Americans free cell phones, voice minutes and texting.] Sure enough, she had a very long list of both names, and telephone numbers. Very quick, very simple, and very easy. I was impressed. Here’s a gal that knows how to get stuff done.

There must have been over 50 names on that list.

The Elvis Summers Vision

Elvis Summers never intended for these homeless houses to be out on the streets, or taking up space on the sidewalk, spreading poop and trash all over the place, and putting little children in harm’s way. What he really wanted, and what he’s always wanted, is a safe, secure place (with some minimal sewage, water, trash, and security infrastructure) to put them.

A place where the homeless could live short-term, within a sensible budget, and get the help they need to permanently transition off the streets, into employment and permanent housing.

Elvis spent roughly four hours answering questions from dozens of reporters, well-wishers, supporters, and average people. I was invited to sit in on no less than a dozen of those interview sessions.

One of the most interesting conversations I heard was regarding Elvis’ experience with the city. Had Elvis reached out to the city to collaborate, or to get authorisation to build these houses? Or to find a place where they could stand, legally and safely?

“Oh, many times. Many, many times.”

How many times?

“Honestly? Too many to count.”

And what was the city’s response?

“Initially? Nothing. Nothing at all.”

How, and when, did the city finally reach out to you?

“That’s a weird story. I was invited to be interviewed by National Public Radio. Of course, that’s a nationwide news media. Along with me, NRP invited a representative from the city to be interviewed as well [Joe Busciano, from Council District 15], to give the other side of the story. Not even a half-hour after that interview, I had an email from the city in my inbox.”

What did it say?

“In a few words? ‘Watch Your Ass’. The tone was definitely very threatening…”

 

The Precedents for Elvis’ Vision

Not only is Elvis’ vision practical; it’s already being done with some success in many other cities and towns across the US. Occupy Madison in Wisconsin is building micro-houses on wheels to house their homeless.

Portland, Oregon has a tiny house settlement called Dignity Village, where the homeless build their own cottages (at an average price of $3,300 each), police themselves, and have access to not only basic services, but also to community WiFi and a big-screen TV in their common-area yurt.

Austin, Texas has a very similar tiny house village for their homeless citizens called Community First Village. It has “a medical facility, a workshop with loaner tools and resources to help with education and job placement”.

There’s a tiny house community in Nashville where the houses cost about $7,000 to build, and are truly adorable by any measure.

The list continues to grow. There’s a church initiative in Seattle that is building heated tiny houses for about $2,200 a piece. Hope Village in Fresno, CA; River Haven in Venture, CA; Opportunity Village and Emerald Village in Eugene, OR; Second Wind cottages in upstate New York; and Quixote Village in Olympia, WA, are even more examples of an emerging, innovative, and truly nationwide trend.

Clearly, there’s a movement at work here.

The Curren Price Photo Op

After the news conference concluded, Curren Price made his way from behind the podium, through a gaggle of news-media types asking questions (he had no comment, according to The Man In The Electric Blue Suit). He strode purposefully across the plaza to where Elvis Summers was quietly standing, smoking a cigarette. Price said a few indistinct words, grabbed Elvis’ hand, smiled for the camera… Flash! Then he turned on his heels, and quickly walked away. Leaving Elvis, and the media, mouths agape and sort of stunned.

“What did he say?” everybody asked.

“He said, ‘I’m not against you. I just think you’re doing it all wrong’.”

Did he elaborate…?

“No.”

What were you thinking?

“You know, I was actually pretty excited when I saw him walking towards me. I was thinking, ‘Is this it? Is this the chance I’ve been waiting for? Is this the day that I finally get an audience with the city council, so I can speak my piece, and maybe work with them on a more permanent, or a more sustainable solution?’ My mind was rushing. I was really happy to finally have a personal word with this guy that’s been shooting me, and the homeless of this city, down for so long.”

Did you say anything to him?

“No. I didn’t have a chance. I had barely opened my mouth, before I realised that he was already gone…”

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