Tiny houses for homeless people sprout in Los Angeles

This one has white trim, cedar siding, a U.S. flag, and wheels to keep it legal CBC News, June 11, 2015 -

There's a small house parked on Van Buren Place. It looks like an abandoned, unfinished doll's mansion. You could probably fit about a thousand of them into the real house behind it.

The tiny house has white trim and cedar siding. It has real tiles, real windows, even an American flag flapping on the roof.

It also has wheels and moves, because it has to.

Irene McGhee, the 60-year-old black woman known as Smokie, sweeps this patch of Van Buren, her front porch. Ten years ago, because of her drug addiction, she ended up homeless, sleeping on the streets of this working class neighbourhood in central L.A.

"Very unsafe," McGhee says. "Be scared I might not wake up the next day, someone come by and hit me on the head or whatever, you know. Very scary."

A couple of months ago, McGhee was collecting recyclables and she ran into Elvis Summers, a 38-year-old resident of Van Buren Place.

A white man with a red Mohawk, Summers looks as out of place in this neighbourhood as the tiny house. "He asked me one day, he said, 'How would you feel if I built you a house?'" McGhee says. "Hah. I'm like, when is it gonna be ready?"

"Once I found out that she had no shelter whatsoever, that was enough," Summers says. "So I went to Home Depot and started loading up my little car with materials and started building her a little house."

Tiny House Movement

Summers got the idea to help McGhee after seeing other examples of the Tiny House Movement, an initiative to build small shelters for homeless people. Summers says he has a background in construction, so building the little house was fairly simple.

"It's really just a box, you know," Summers says. "You just build out a frame. Four edges, put a couple of beams in between. But I think there's a special psychological component to putting a little extra into it."

The key, he says, was the wheels. That meant it complied with local bylaws.

"Since it is on wheels, it's kind of treated like a car when it's in the street, it has to be moved every 72 hours."

It took Summers five days and it cost him $500.

McGhee said the first night she slept in it, she cried.

"I slept so comfortable. I wish I could just hug it all the way round," she says, hugging the side of the house.

"I just built it in the street," Summers says. "Most people were just curious. They were like, what are you building? They thought I was building a shed or a playhouse."

Summers filmed the construction of the first build and posted a video online asking for donations. It was a YouTube sensation, and so far he says he's raised $80,000.

"It's been nuts," Summers says. "It's gone so global. The response has been humbling and overwhelming. It's great."

Summers is now building two more tiny houses and hopes to build dozens more.

"It's not the solution," Summers says. "It's just the first step. We have more than enough resources and more than enough money. The problem is that people don't care."

Standing outside her home, McGhee proudly gives me a tour. It takes about 10 seconds.

"A radio, my clothes, a bed ... my little dishes," she points to a red ghetto blaster on the floor, "my music."

On the window sill is a present from Summers: a cross that reads "Hope."

"Hope I can do better," she laughs.

McGhee says she'd like to go to school and get a job, and eventually have a home in which she can actually stand up.

"I want to do so much! But I can't," McGhee says. "One day at a time, one step at a time."

Then she jumps on her bike and pedals downtown for an appointment. Life isn't easy, she says, but at least these days she has something to come back to.

"I can get a good night's rest!"

Then she'll push her house a little further up the street. So she doesn't get a ticket.

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