L.A. Officials Impound Tiny Houses Donated to the Homeless

Dry, secure and dignity-providing: Why are these colorful tiny houses near South L.A.'s freeways being seized?. (Photo: By ppa/Shutterstock)

When it comes to the City of Angels homeless, benevolent spirits can take on a vast variety of shapes and forms. One just happens to come brandishing sleeve tattoos, a mohawk and advanced carpentry skills. This particular angel’s name? He goes by Elvis.

This past spring, Elvis Summers, a 38-year-old Angeleno in possession of the biggest heart this side of the 405 (or the 101, the 5, the 101 or the 110), took a long, hard look around his South Los Angeles neighborhood. And he didn’t like what he saw.

In a city struggling with an ongoing homelessness crisis that reached "state of emergency" level status in September (or did it?), Summers turned to online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe to raise money for his fellow Angelenos for whom a sense of permanence and dignity has been elusive. Mostly, he wanted to put roofs over a whole bunch of heads, starting with his friend Irene "Smokie" McGhee, a beloved neighborhood woman, a grandmother, who has lived on the streets for over a decade.

"It just got to me, you know, I'm just like, you know, everybody in this neighborhood knows you, they like you," Summers tells NPR. "Why does nobody give a crap that you're sleeping in the dirt? Literally."

And so, Summers, using cash raised through his GoFundMe campaign, began to build roofs — dozens of tiny roofs to top a fleet of cheerily hued mobile tiny houses, each measuring 6-feet-by-8-feet. In the process, Summers, who has no previous affiliations with governmental social services organizations or charitable groups, founded the Tiny House Project.

To date, Summers, along with the help of a loyal group of volunteers, have constructed and distributed 37 tiny houses to those living on the streets of South L.A. Costing roughly $1,200 each to build, each portable structure is clad with rooftop solar panels and equipped with a camping toilet. The dwellings certainly aren’t anything fancy — they’re immediately reminiscent of backyard playhouses or garden sheds in their simplicity and size. And they certainly aren’t kitted out. However, there are four walls, windows, a door that locks and an architectural feature that most take for granted: a roof.

While a large number of fellow do-gooders — and a number of national and international news outlets — have taken notice of the handiwork of South L.A.’s punk rock humanitarian-on-a-mission, so has the city.

In recent weeks, sanitation workers have started to tag Sommers' tiny homes for imminent removal. Although the wooden structures are mobile, Summers placed most of them in existing homeless encampments near the 110 freeway as to, according to the Los Angeles Times, “not block businesses or other residences.” The ultimate goal is to secure private land on which to build out a proper tiny house village similar to ones found in Austin, Nashville, Seattle and Olympia, Washington.

Summers has scrambled to save some of the targeted homes, temporarily relocating them — sans their residents, sadly — to private property where they can’t be seized. Three of the homes have already been confiscated. The structures can be impounded — and potentially destroyed — by the city as part of a controversial ordinance passed last year that permits city workers to freely clear “bulky items" found in parks and freeway-side homeless encampments.

Many South L.A. residents have rallied around Summers’ mission to “give people in the world a safe place to sleep.” Others, not so much. Some local residents have claimed that's there's been an uptick in prostitution, theft and drug-related activity since the arrival of the tiny houses. Some simply don’t like the way they look: “Elvis provided these people what I call an outhouse," lifelong neighborhood resident June Ellen Richard,” told the Times. "A house that looks like Snoopy."

As for the city, it began exploring methods of removing the structures back in August with Councilmembers Curren Price and Joe Buscaino leading the charge. City officials believe the tiny houses, no matter how well-intentioned or thoughtfully constructed, present a public safety hazard.

Says Connie Llanos, spokeswoman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti:

"Unfortunately, these structures are a safety hazard. These structures, some of the materials that were found in some of them, just the thought of folks having some of these things in a space so small, so confined, without the proper insulation, it really does put their lives in danger."

Llanos suggest that those living in Summers’ privacy-providing, parking spot-sized dwellings should instead seek out city-run shelters or housing vouchers.

Back in August, Summers, who himself has experienced homelessness in the past, explained that although small, the houses are a step above bus benches, sidewalks and makeshift tarpaulin tents. “But when I'm actually providing an emergency shelter for them, now they want to nitpick about all kinds of situations and scenarios that may or may not happen." Summers goes on to label this approach as "definitely not part of the solution. It's part of the problem."

Despite feeling the wrath of the bureaucratic powers that be, Summers remains undeterred and defiant. He has vowed to continue providing shelter to as many of the roughly 44,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles as he can.

“Enough is enough. It’s a human rights violation and a humanitarian crisis. There are human beings suffering right now,” he tells TakePart of the city's crackdown, adding: “Even if I have to do it all myself, buying private land and doing it that way, I will. Either way, I am going to help these people. I won’t turn my back on them.”

Via [NPR], [LA Times]