New Beginnings Homeless Community

“With diminishing housing options, the gap between the ‘housed’ and the ‘unhoused’ has continued to swell, making it substantially more difficult for one to transition back into housing after losing it. . . To be considered ‘affordable’, housing is supposed to take up no more than 30 percent of your income, yet half of all renters are now paying a higher percentage. This has created what U.S. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan has called, ‘the worst rental affordability crisis this country has ever known.’”
Andrew Heben, Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages

New Beginnings is a transitional housing community for homeless singles making insufficient wages and lacking access to affordable housing. The complex is designed as a pop-up camp compliant with a provisional permit allowing only temporary structures. Resident stays will average four months with a maximum allowable stay of six months. Since permanent site modifications are prohibited at this time, the project typologically lies somewhere between a tent city and a tiny house village. Both informal settlement patterns have become common responses to shortfalls in the formal housing sector. Since more than one percent of the nation’s population—or 3.7 million people—experience short-term homelessness at any given time, we cannot ignore the role of informal solutions in providing essential shelter and services as a stepping stone back to formal housing.

Components are prefabricated and assembled on site for ease of removal. Residents will be housed in A-frame cabins measuring 16’ x 11’ (121 sf interior) with high R-value envelopes, including a porch. The A-frame is easy to build and efficient in use of materials compared to conventional forms of construction. Despite differences in materials and scales, the A-frame typology provides a coherent collective identity, important since individual contractors will construct these cabins from repurposed materials. Each cabin will have pendant lights, a USB wall outlet, and a wall-mounted ventilation fan powered by a community photovoltaic supply. Fire safety is a primary concern, so heat will be pumped in from propane sources outside the unit, avoiding risks with operating stoves or space heaters within the cabin. Water service is provided outside the unit. Exterior fire pits for cooking are shared among subgroupings of 4-6 units, lending a social organization to the community that is neither overly rigid nor haphazard. All units share a central community garden linking cabins to a community porch.

The provision of social services and social interaction are as equally important to homeless populations as shelter. Indeed, as Heben argues, informal settlements compel self-governance, independence, tolerance, and mutual aid often lacking in formal homeless shelters. Accordingly, a boardwalk shaded by a community roof shelters a portable toilet and shower area, office and social service area, and a screened porch structure underneath. Security is most important to homeless villages. Long-span fence trusses straddle the sloping topography, avoiding the use of conventional fence construction more disruptive to the site. The community boardwalk serves as a controlled entry point into the community. A future community center will infill the large A-frame shell plugged into the community porch. The community component will house an on-site resident staff and visits from off-site complementary service providers.

Despite the community’s gated requirements and pragmatic bottom line, the complex extends a sense of dignity and graciousness for residents while offering an inviting front to visitors and new residents. Exemplifying tactical urban housing, the project expands upon the city’s interest in tactical urbanism to address dynamic public-interest challenges through low impact means. Such low impact settlements offer greater restorative value than tent cities but are not as expensive as affordable housing.

AuthorLinda Komlos
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