They’re affordable, attractive, functional and could go a long way to getting homeless people off the street.
If only there were a place to legally put them.
Amikas, a local nonprofit that for the past few years has been pushing for small homes to temporarily house homeless people, is working with the nonprofit Treecycling Inc. to showcase several emergency sleeping cabins at an expo at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in North Park though Feb. 25.
“I think people seeing it first-hand are realizing how acceptable it can be,” Amikas member Rob Bird said about reaction to the display.
A new state law allows cities the flexibility to set up the cabins on public land, although other restrictions would have to be lifted to put them on private property.
Amikas formed in 2009 with a focus on helping homeless women with children and homeless female veterans. Two years later, the nonprofit opened Amikas House in Mountain View to provide housing for homeless female veterans and their children.
In recent years, it has advocated using emergency sleeping cabins, which it previously referred to as tiny homes, as a temporary way of getting people off the street.
The group uses the term emergency sleeping cabins now to avoid confusion with the tiny homes movement of people scaling back their lives and moving into smaller but fully functional houses. In contrast, the cabins are meant to be temporary and generally do not have amenities such as bathrooms or kitchens.
So far, there is no official endorsement of the idea from any San Diego city official, but with about 1,000 people on the street in downtown San Diego alone, many ideas are on the table.
A work plan proposed by San Diego City Councilmember Chris Ward, chair of the city’s Select Committee on Homelessness, includes exploring the use of cabins and under-utilized facilities, buildings and sites for use as emergency shelters.
Councilmember Georgette Gómez, also a member of the Select Committee on Homelessness, has proposed her own Housing Action Plan that includes the use of small houses as part of innovative solutions she said the city should pursue.
“Emergency sleeping cabins, or “tiny homes” that include access to services and case management can provide immediate options for people without shelter at a relatively low cost,” Gómez wrote in an e-mail.
“While they are not a permanent solution to the homelessness crisis we are experiencing in San Diego, we should explore the full range of alternatives,” she wrote. “I am very interested in working with the mayor and our community stakeholders to bring a pilot (program) to District 9.”
The idea also has emerged as a campaign issue with at least one candidate. Omar Passons, running for the District 4 County Board of Supervisors seat, issued a proposed “Hope4Homeless” plan this week that calls for $100 million to build “micro-units” and fund other steps to help the homeless.
Bird said the city has a new opportunity in using cabins as temporary shelters in Assembly Bill 932, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October and went into effect Jan. 1.
The law allows San Diego and seven other California cities or counties to suspend state and local building standards for three years to create more emergency shelters for homeless people.
Bird said the law could allow the city of San Diego to create communities of emergency sleeping cabins, but further action by the city would be needed to allow individuals to put the cabins on their property for use as shelters.
Attorney and Amikas President Shanna Welsh-Levin said city officials could lift some restrictions and allow private property owners to use the cabins as shelters on their own land. She doesn’t think that would be a good idea, however, because it would raise questions about property owners’ liability and tenants’ rights, among other concerns.
“I think the city could choose not to enforce its regulations in the interest of addressing the crisis, but I don’t think they would do it,” she said. “Homeowners would be taking a risk.”
Instead, Welsh-Levin said, more cities should join San Diego in being included in AB 932, and she encouraged officials in other municipalities to contact state legislators — Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher in particular because she has been supportive of it.
The display at St. Luke’s, located at 3725 30th St., includes two 96-square-foot cabins and one 64-square-foot cabin. Structures that size do not require building permits, but using them for dwellings would violate zoning laws, Bird said.
Allowing homeowners to build the cabins in their backyards for use as temporary homeless shelters would help take people off the street and give them a safer place to sleep, but Bird acknowledged that the structures themselves are not an end goal.
As with other shelters, including the three large tented structures the city operates to house about 700 homeless people, Bird said Amikas supports connecting the people who would use the cabins with services that would help them overcome issues that lead to their homelessness.
Amikas had a similar display of cabins at the same church last March. Bird said the new display features updated models that are insulated and taller to give a more roomy, home-like feel inside.
The display also includes an active wood shop to demonstrate construction methods of the houses, which Bird said can be put up in just a few hours.
“This concept is so easy to wrap your arms around,” he said. “People want to be part of the solution, and this enables them.”
The smallest cabin at the site cost about $500 to build and can be transported on a $300 trailer. A poster at the display breaks down the $1,726 cost of an 8-foot by 12-foot cabin with a 4-foot by 8-foot porch.
People visiting the site and interested in buying one of the cabins can place a bid on them as part of a silent auction that concludes Sunday.