Building homes for hope

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USC architecture students teamed up with Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission to design modular, temporary structures for the homeless in the San Fernando Valley.

Tens of thousands of people are currently living on LA’s streets. Last November voters passed Measure HHH, to direct $1.3 billion to build more permanent supporting housing in LA County. Last week they passed Measure H, to provide the supportive services.

But going from passing a measure to welcoming people into their new home is a long and laborious process. That’s why the Martin Architecture and Design Workshop (MADWORKSHOP) and USC’s School of Architecture teamed up with Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, a housing and homeless service provider in the San Fernando Valley, to design modular, temporary structures for the homeless.

For Sofia Borges, an architecture professor at USC, this is personal. Her brother, Daren, was homeless in Northern California, living off and on the streets for roughly 20 years, and he died recently at the age of 42.

“You know, L.A. has the worst homeless problem in the United States, and it’s in our backyards. And as architects and as architecture students we have the ability to create shelter and to create solutions that should be not just for the one percent but for everyone,” Borges said.

Over the course of a semester Borges and her class, called the MADWORKSHOP Homeless Studio, had students develop full scale, inhabitable nomadic shelters. Then they built three tiny homes in a week using materials scavenged from around the city. Then she sought out agencies that might welcome the students’ help.

“In the San Fernando Valley there is approximately 7,000 homeless people. There’s only 900 beds. So there’s encampments and the encampments are increasing because there just is not any place for people to sleep,” said Ken Craft, President and CEO of Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission.

Late last year, the organization opened a new 30-bed facility, called the Hope Care Center.

“This is a recuperative care shelter that provides housing and homeless services for homeless individuals that are being discharged from the hospital, that are injured and they are ill and they have no place else to go. So instead of them being discharged to the streets, they are brought to us here. And we work with them to prepare them for permanent supportive housing,” Craft said.

But in the meantime, Craft says there’s an urgent need to get people off the streets right away. So his group partnered with the USC architecture students to work on the design of temporary housing modules.

DnA asked Craft why his group would choose new designs by USC students rather than the kind of manufactured, mass-produced mobile dwellings used by the military.

“Because the city’s not going allow that,” Craft said. “They won’t allow the barrack-type housing that the military might come in and do… when it’s an emergency, in a crisis you can override some of the safety and public health issues. But right now in the community they want a facility that actually is doable, that looks good in the community, that’s not a blight to the community. And so you’re dealing with community acceptance of a program as well. This has a great curb appeal. It’s built off site. It’s delivered on site and it can be removed as well. And when people are living there it feels permanent, even though it is still transitional.”

Students with the MADWORKSHOP Homeless Studio at the USC School of Architecture worked hard to make their scheme acceptable to the community.

“We wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls of something like the FEMA trailers,” said Scott Mitchell, assistant professor of practice at USC’s School of Architecture. “We kind of realized there were these churches with flagging congregations or empty used car lots… throughout the Valley that we can take advantage of.”

“So we wanted to start with something as simple as a box, but we don’t want people to be identified as living in a container-esque home,” said student Jayson Champlain. “So we ended up adding just a slight architectural element, nothing too extremen but there’s a slight angled wall on the exterior that faces the street. It’s just a simple dynamic and when you’re walking by this you’re not seeing a row of apartment buildings, you’re just looking at this undulating surface. It seems more appealing than just rigid boxes.”

Setting up a community like this, no matter how temporary, is still expensive. Student Aleksander Drabovskiy says they expect each module to cost about $25,000 for parts and labor. But through partnerships and deals with manufacturers, he thinks it’s doable.

“People are willing to help and they want to contribute to this project. They want to make sure that it’s a realized goal and everyone wants to be on board to help, whether it’s providing some discounts on steel or if it’s getting furniture for these units,” Drabovskiy said.

Borges says they received input from homeless people as well.

“We’ve been visiting the shelter and also working with different agencies across the city, and so having speakers come in that were formerly homeless or currently experiencing homelessness. So they basically had to go through a boot camp into the issue of homelessness before they were allowed to start designing anything,” Borges said.

Rendering of Homes for Hope. Photo courtesy The Martin Architecture and Design Workshop (MADWORKSHOP) and USC. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For the students the project has been a crash course in reality, from hand-building tiny homes to navigating the system to building the modular housing. This is pretty rare, says student Belinda Pak.

“In architecture school you tend to stick more with the theoretical. So having an opportunity to build a real project and propose something that has potential to make a lot of social change is really exciting. It’s not something [that] many architectural students or even architects are able to do in such a short amount of time,” Pak said.

Hope for the Valley is now raising money from the city, county and private foundations to build a prototype and shop it around to other homeless service providers.

“I could not be more impressed with the students from USC and what they’ve come up with as a viable solution. And what’s wonderful is this has gone beyond just theory and nice dreams. They’ve been working with the Planning Department of the city of Los Angeles each step of the way. So what we see here today is, it’s real. This can be implemented,” Craft said.

“We’re just one social service agency, but imagine if we could get 100 social service agencies that would adopt this. And we can manufacture it in bulk and then begin to procure the various sites all throughout the city. We can make a significant difference. I mean, we could easily put up 3,000 or 4,000 of these. And in doing so we begin to really drop the amount of homeless that are here in Los Angeles.”