Friday, July 1, 2016

Habitat for Families: Think Inside the Box

 Louisville, KY, which is actually the beautiful, thriving and well heeled 16th largest city in America, sadly has over 11,000 homeless school children that live in the streets, parks and cars in blistering summer heat and freezing winter ice and snow.  Worse, we're not the only community with this problem. There are over a million homeless children in America. No child should live like this. 

My sixteen year old daughter Natalie and I have been discussing this issue for a few years now. Not much has changed, except a few years ago the figure was 9000. These are real kids, not just a digit in that 11,000 figure. Some arrive at school dirty, disheveled, and depressed. The saddest are the little kids who stare blankly at the school bus floor and don't interact with anyone. 

Closer to home, some of my daughter's friends are homeless. She recently asked me if there really were no smart adults who could solve this problem. 

Maybe it takes a fed up teenager to snap us to attention. I don't know, but I'm the adult willing to step up to the plate. 

I've gone to bed every night for a few years now thinking about these kids sleeping in cars and in parks, and I feel ashamed to be crawling into a clean feather laden bed. As a society we should be ashamed. All I could think to do was bring them all to my house. That's not a solution, but at least I recognized the problem and wanted to take an action. 

Few of us are immune to homelessness. It’s a fear we live with pretty regularly even at our own house. As a society, we can do better. We need to take better care of each other. 

THE GOAL: So together we started looking at actually solving the problem. The goal became to develop a different kind of community where homeless children and their parents can immediately stop being homeless, and stop being labeled as homeless. A place where they can get off the streets and out of scary open cot filled shelters. A place not just for shelter, but for families to gain a real foothold. A place where they can overcome the hurdles they are facing and acquire the skills they need to succeed in school, work and in a community. All things critical to getting a leg back into society.  

THE INSPIRATION: The idea came from two sources: Our love of tiny houses and a trip to Costco where a tiny playhouse set on one of the warehouses aisles provided the catalyst. 

While tiny houses seem like the perfect solution for homeless people, they aren't easily built in communities due to a dizzying array of roadblocks: appropriate building lots, zoning restrictions, building codes, permit costs & prohibitive utility set up and connect fees. 

One family we know, who is actually living in a dwelling but without water, was told they'd need to pay $10,000 upfront to have just the water pipe installed from the street to the house by the city after THEY dug the ditch. Absolutely insurmountable bureaucratic excess at its finest. 

With nowhere to feasibly put tiny houses, particularly in any meaningful quantity, we needed a better plan. We actually needed to think INSIDE THE BOX, and this is where Costco came in. 

THE PLAN: To combine a large, clean, well lit warehouse (think Costco style) with a form of tiny houses arranged inside that would give each family a safe, private and secure place to sleep, read, laugh, do homework and bathe. Set up as a small working community for families with school children, the focus is on families, their children's education and their parents advancement back into society.  

THE HOUSING: The non-smoking community (see PDF) is comprised of 2 sizes of steel framed modular dwellings, including handicapped accessible units, which provide a strong, secure sleeping space for 3 to 6 family members, a bathroom, storage for clothing & necessities, a desk, a chair and lighting. The temperature controlled warehouse means no need for individual A/C or heaters in each unit. Smoke alarms and sprinklers would be installed in the houses and in the warehouse.

                                                                     Photo credit: Moduflex™ 

The plan houses 240 families as drawn; a maximum capacity of 1152 total people. However, families aren't always 3 people or 6 people - they could be a family of 2 or 4, so that number would most likely always be a bit less. It also might make sense to intersperse a few grandmother or grandfather single person units on each street and designate them as full-time respected community mentors. 

   If we could stack the steel containers, it would house twice as many families. There would have to be space planned for exterior steel staircases, appropriate emergency exits. Larger community service areas, such as dining, laundry, study areas and so forth, would be needed to meet the needs of more residents.

                                                                       Photo credit: Moduflex™ 

UTILITIES: Individual porta-potties and porta-showers (including handicapped accessible units) are plugged into the back of each small dwelling. These are maintained from the closed service-only back streets (marked in blue on the plan) for easy maintenance. This also makes it possible to swap out aging or broken equipment quickly and easily.  Fresh water supplies can be run overhead and down to the homes. Hot water can be provided by on-demand water heaters. 

                                                                             Photo credit: Armal

Individual dwelling with shower and toilet plugged into the back

ENERGY USE: If the community were housed in a zero-net energy warehouse with geothermal heating and cooling, as well as the possibility of solar, the facility could energize itself as well as potentially produce more energy than it used. This could be sold or traded back to the city, further supporting the micro-community. 

STUDENT SUPPORT: The community incorporates a Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) library, computer lab, study halls and a music practice room. Additionally, there could be E-School on site for those students needing to catch up. Bicycles are available to ride up and down the indoor 'streets', as well as outdoor recreation areas not yet shown in the drawing. There would be a designated bus loading hub and students would leave from here each morning via their school buses to attend their regular JCPS school. 

PARENT SUPPORT:  There are already so many programs available to support parents in going back to school themselves, finding jobs, learning new skills and overcoming bad habits. Healthy parenting programs and programs to address the issues that create homelessness to begin with are also needed, and all would be plugged into the center. 

FOOD: A main kitchen keeps food prep (a fire and vector hazard...) out of the dwellings and places it in a controlled community dining facility. Teaching families about cooking and healthy food choices is an important part of community education. Addressing long term health is important as it presents a future drain on society. This is the perfect opportunity to help families understand healthy food choices, learn to make new foods and put it all together along with meal planning and budgeting. A large community garden with lots of fresh foods provide further education on multiple levels.  

MULTI-MEDIA: One or two large gathering rooms for news, movies, events and activities. Getting back into society means catching up on the world around you as well as partaking in some of the more enjoyable parts of life. 

FEATURES: Cool new types of artificial grass from companies such as Synlawn creates realistic, soft lawns that kids can sit and play on and around the front of the dwellings.  Pictured below is how nice it looks. Being maintenance free means it would make the community look fabulous. We we're trying to get a sample of this stuff but it's proving difficult. 

                                                  Photo credit: Synlawn

A rubber (recycled!) sidewalk provides walking paths, keeping pedestrians off the 'streets' where kids can ride bikes and electric service cars can travel. 

                                                 Photo credit: Terrecon

Indoor basketball and volleyball courts are possible, as well as outside sports fields, grassy park areas and the community garden to supplement the kitchen. 

Overall warehouse lighting keeps the space lit and safe, but the lighting can be controlled in sectors and in colors and shades with Hue lighting. It can be changed for sunrise effects and dimmed at bed times. Hue lighting can also be used in study and other work areas for better concentration.  

                                                                   Photo credit: Philips

High transom windows and skylights in the warehouse further provide for the visual effect of real night and day, with traditional street lights at 'lights out'. 
                                                                   Photo credit: FreeLite

LOGISTICS, TRANSPORTATION & SAFETY: Golf cart sized electric vehicles provide the various transportation needed to run, service, transport people, and maintain the community, including internal medic and fire safety services. Fork lifts provide the moving power for everything from arranging housing units to moving supplies. 

                                                Photo Credit: Cushman

NEW IN TOWN?: The reception and intake areas provide the space to assess new residents needs, process them and assign them into the community. For security, sanitation and public health for the entire community, each family gets themselves, their health and their belongings sorted out and cleaned up before heading to their little house and their new lives. Stop smoking help via the clinic and fresh haircuts, too. 

Cat and dog kennels and runs are in the facility so that families don't have to surrender their family pet to a kill shelter while they work toward returning to traditional housing in the future. 

EVERYONE WORKS: The community provides plenty of work for its residents, besides actively seeking work outside the community, and all residents are assigned jobs and tasks within the community. 

There is kitchen, dishwashing and dining room work, laundry room work, supply stocking, security, keeping the community clean, trash collection, gardening, yard work, kennel cleaning, library, music hall and study hall monitors, building maintenance, and more - and all of these equate to job skills that can be transferred into jobs in the real community. 

An onsite mail center sorts out incoming mail to residents. Residents now have a real address which they can use when applying for jobs outside of the habitat - working towards self sufficiency and finally moving their family out into the real community.

WHAT ELSE DOES IT DO? It brings jobs to our city. Construction, steel, cement, electrical, landscaping, building services, maintenance services, technology, hard goods, soft goods, appliances, food and more - and key staff to manage and run the facility. The facility's resident work force also has the ability to produce a product, perform a service or otherwise further contribute to its own support. 


THE COSTS:  Each homeless individual costs the public upwards of $3000 a month, and this doesn't include the life-long effects and costs on children forced to live under such circumstances. 

                                     Graph and info via Where We Sleep 

Public costs go down when individuals are no longer homeless. Stopping homelessness, not just through housing, but through better family education and support for our youths and their parents can only further reduce the short and long term societal costs.  Plus it's just the right thing to do. God help us should we turn a blind eye to a child sleeping in the streets. 

While the cost for the entire project will need to be determined, initial building costs spread over the number of people served over time should make it an attractive option. Factoring in the social education opportunity, the ability to generate energy and making use of the resident workforce, can make this a very smart, cost effective option. 

Any roof can provide shelter. Give a family a community and you teach them how to live. 

GETTING IT GOING:  We need an architect to determine the occupancy thresholds, implement all the proper building and safety codes, and flesh out the floor plan. We need mentoring on multiple levels. We need experts to help us gain state and federal funding, including what HUD and other agencies can bring to the table for development as well as on an ongoing basis. 

We need to create either a real or virtual 3D scale model of a home, and of at least a portion of the community to show to various councils, trusts and sponsors here in Louisville and beyond. Later we'll do fund raising and crowd funding to bring things the community needs. Everything from can you donate a lightbulb to can an individual or corporation sponsor a housing unit? This is the part where as individuals we make a conscious decision to improve our communities by taking better care of each other.

ABOUT THE DRAWING: I have an interior design (UCLA) and construction background, so I drew the rough example plans. In the PDF you can zoom in and scroll down and see the housing detail and other aspects. The dining and multi-purpose rooms are not correctly sized or placed. Those have to be determined by how they will be used and how many will use them at a time. The houses are drawn to scale and to code, however, there is some code I can't find or I don't know. There may need to be more corridors to emergency exits between the houses, as exits placed at either end of the streets may not provide the correct fire and safety configuration. It's fixable. This is just a sample plan. 

See sample plan here
  There may need to be an egress window on each house if the 3' front door that swings out alone doesn't meet egress code. I can't find info on that since there aren't many any communities built inside warehouses to compare it with.

Square footage per person may also come into play. Dorms are as close as I can get, but it's still not the same. So, in that case, dwellings may need to be resized, grouped in twos with windows on either side, and space given between the houses. That takes up more space, but if that's the code, we'll have to allot for it. All to be determined later. 

I'm really proud of all the work, planning and thinking Natalie has done on this project to help put it into action. Both of us saw ourselves riding bicycles up and down the streets, jumping on the bunk beds (shh!) and giggling on the fake grass. Life is good at Habitat for Families :)  

                                             Photo Credit: Anni Bricca


The larger tiny house floor plan: 3' entry door with a 2' window on the right at the end of the 6' writing desk/counter space. Six linear feet of storage cabinets are above the desk. Six linear feet of floor to ceiling cabinet storage is adjacent to the desk. Twin sized bunks for four family members and pull out floor trundle for two more. Plug in wash/toilet facilities, a sink and room to dress.

                                            Photo Credit: Anni Bricca