L.A. Is Making a Big Push to Curb Homelessness. Will Small Houses Play a Role?

Advocate Elvis Summers offers up one inside-the-box solution
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Illustration by Andy Martin
Illustration by Andy Martin

Local leaders made it official in late September: With an estimated 26,000 people living on the streets in L.A., homelessness has reached a state of emergency. Surrounded by reporters on the South Lawn of City Hall, members of the city council announced plans to commit $100 million to combating the problem. This on the heels of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s request the day before to spend $13 million to provide immediate relief for the homeless in the form of short-term housing.

Angelenos didn’t need a press conference to realize how severe the situation has become. Encampments like the ones synonymous with skid row have cropped up along the Arroyo Seco, under freeway overpasses, and in residential neighborhoods, prompting officials to speed up the process for removing property left on sidewalks and in parks. Based on figures from a midyear report, homelessness has increased 12 percent since Garcetti took office two years ago. And as many as 2,700 are homeless veterans—more than in any other U.S. city.

One man, Elvis Summers, felt so moved by the poverty of Irene “Smokie” McGhee, who’d been living on the streets of his South L.A. neighborhood, that in April he spent $500 to build her a 3.5-by-8-foot house on wheels. It changed McGhee’s life, providing the 60-year-old grandmother with a safe, mobile space. Summers has constructed dozens more using the $85,000 he raised through a GoFundMe campaign, but the city council declared they must be removed. Two of the reasons cited? They don’t have running water or reflective markings. “The only legal use for these,” said councilman Joe Buscaino, “is for dogs.”

Elvis Summers (right) welcomes Irene “Smokie” McGhee to her new residence, one of many he built for the homeless in South L.A.
Elvis Summers (right) welcomes Irene “Smokie” McGhee to her new residence, one of many he built for the homeless in South L.A.

Photograph by Jason Schneider

Summers hasn’t given up; he wants to create a collective with tiny houses—and utilities—on a local plot of land. The idea recalls Dome Village, a city-sanctioned community of fiberglass pods that provided low-income shelter on the outskirts of downtown from the early ’90s until 2006, at which point the land had apparently become too valuable for philanthropic use.

How City Hall will find, let alone spend, the money it has pledged to address the emergency is an open question. But given the immediate and low-cost benefits of a solution like Summers’s diminutive structures, maybe it shouldn’t be so quick to discard the idea. You can bet there are thousands of Angelenos who would be happy to have any sort of roof over their head, even one that’s on wheels.

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