Homeless Take Warmly to `Igloos' in Los Angeles

A villageof white domed huts on a sea of asphalt replaces a cardboard shantytown

TO hear Ted Hayes tell it, one small step for the homeless here could be one giant leap in the fight against homelessness worldwide.

``We're going to go global with this, watch us,'' says the 6-foot, 4-inch homeless activist, standing in a grove of 18 igloo-like domes, clustered in the shadow of the Los Angeles skyline.

The inexpensive ($6,500) and easily assembled fiberglass dwellings have been turning heads toward this plot of asphalt, wedged between an alley and freeway offramp.

Tomorrow, these ``omnispheres'' will formally replace the cardboard-and-canvas shantytown that exists adjacent to the same spot, where about 18 homeless people have subsisted for a number of years.

Landmark structures that meet city codes while optimizing conservation of energy and raw materials, the structures have been sped through the permit process with the help of new Mayor Richard Riordan.

On the face of it, the futuristic dwellings are a high-tech answer to transitional housing for homeless that can be cloned easily to other locations across the city and country.

But a second component is more important, according to Mr. Hayes. ``This project isn't just about domes,'' he says. ``If done right, this is about empowering the homeless by giving them the opportunity to regain their own self-esteem.''

Instead of traditional approaches like offering cheap housing through skid-row, single-room hotels or food handouts through local soup kitchens, Hayes wants to involve homeless people in their own return to life as productive citizens.

By offering the opportunity of learning or regaining responsible skills - such basics as maintaining laundry, kitchen, toilets, showers - he wants to break the cycle of helplessness many homeless have come to accept.

By rotating volunteers through this pilot community together, enforcing the regimentation of self-assembly and maintenance, Hayes wants to transplant trained volunteers to spawn other communities. The key to success, he says, is that the impetus for self-betterment must come from within the ranks of homeless people.

``Society wants to push us off into the corner like crazed zombies or lepers,'' says Eri Burns, a homeless person who has lived in a canvas-covered encampment here for about six months. ``There are plenty of us here who know we've got to help ourselves before somebody else will. For many, this will be a way to prove it.''

``Ted is on the cutting edge,'' says Gene Jackson, homeless coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, whose 43,000 to 77,000 chronically homeless people are second in number only to those in New York. Seventy percent of them are said to exist primarily in encampments in empty lots, beneath trestles and bridges or behind bushes.

``No one is sure if Ted's idea will work,'' Mr. Jackson says, ``but several communities are watching closely, ready to key on what he does.''

In return for keeping the housing tidy, homeless people get an address where relatives and employers can find them, phones to help job searches, a place to store belongings, and a means to keep both warm and clean. A given community gets a far more aesthetic alternative to the ubiquitous encampments of cardboard, canvas lean-tos, shopping carts, and storage cartons.

``This is just the first stage,'' Hayes says. ``The idea must be given time to grow before we can make big claims.'' The first 24 ``omnispherians'' were chosen personally by Hayes, one of the best-known homeless activists in Los Angeles. Eight years ago, he founded Justiceville Homeless USA, a homeless advocacy group.

Several applicants have already helped assemble domes, which are about 20 feet in diameter and 63 feet in circumference. Each ``igloo'' is intended to hold two to four dwellers each.

According to designer Craig Chamberlain, the units can be assembled in about two hours by four people using basic instructions. Slightly convex hexagonal and pentagonal panels are joined at the seams by one-inch bolts, twistable by hand. Solar panels on the roof provide electricity.

``We really thought it was time to try something different than the standard Band-Aid approaches that have pretty much remained the same for the last 50 to 60 years,'' says Carlton Norris, community affairs manager for ARCO. The company recently donated $250,000 toward Hayes's concept.

``Only recently have we begun to realize that the ranks of homeless are not filled with the cliche, 70-year-old wino, but women, children, and well-educated people who until a few months ago were gainfully employed,'' Mr. Norris says. At the pilot site will be two community bathrooms, eight showers, a laundry, a kitchen, and administrative quarters.

Hayes is looking for landowners willing to devote space to the concept and has ongoing negotiations to create dome communities with at least two military bases in California.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.