September 28, 2022

Hualienrainbow

We Bring Good Things to Life

$1,000 apiece, built without permission

Three NASA engineers huddled around a big plywood box they’d just built in a San Jose driveway.

A few feet away, an environmental activist, whose building plans they were all using, installed a solar panel on an identical box, a “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” tattoo peeking out from his sleeve.

Their goal: Turn as many of these DIY structures as possible into roughly 4-by-6-foot mobile huts on wheels, like one with a bright-orange-and-blue paint job already loaded on a trailer. If all went well, it would soon be a micro home for someone on the street in Silicon Valley.

“There’s a woman I’ve been talking to about moving in,” said Jay Samson, the engineer behind grassroots emergency housing effort Simply Shelter. “I’m hoping she’ll be there tonight.”

Every other weekend for the past year, Samson has gathered friends, co-workers and volunteers to build the boxes with futuristic slanted walls, small triangular windows, locking doors and solar charging stations. Once complete, the shelters are hand-delivered to homeless neighbors — all without asking permission from cities, police or agencies that administer California’s multibillion-dollar homeless-services budget.

NASA engineer Jay Samson takes the measurements of a mobile plywood shelter he and his fellow volunteers are building to offer to an unhoused person in San Jose. Samson’s grassroots effort, called Simply Shelter, was inspired by a Santa Cruz climate activist and the increased visibility of homelessness during the pandemic.

NASA engineer Jay Samson takes the measurements of a mobile plywood shelter he and his fellow volunteers are building to offer to an unhoused person in San Jose. Samson’s grassroots effort, called Simply Shelter, was inspired by a Santa Cruz climate activist and the increased visibility of homelessness during the pandemic.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

With six micro homes now scattered around San Jose and Santa Cruz, Simply Shelter is part of a wave of homeless aid spearheaded by ordinary residents during the pandemic. Their efforts offer volunteers a crash course in issues that once seemed far removed from life in affluent parts of the Bay Area, and also highlight big questions about a humanitarian crisis decades in the making:

What counts as dignified shelter? How do you help people reeling from trauma or addiction? And can a small group of well-intentioned but largely untrained volunteers accomplish some of what their elected representatives have long failed to do?

For Alex Londos, the 41-year-old Santa Cruz climate activist who designed the “Micro Tiny Homes” that inspired Simply Shelter, the aim is even simpler: Reduce the misery of sleeping outside that he knows all too well.

“It’s not a solution for the homeless problem,” Londos said. “It’s a really good solution for people who are suffering.”

If you build, will they come?

After a long day of building, a small band of Simply Shelter volunteers headed to a grassy area near a busy San Jose shopping center. They unfolded a table and chairs a few feet from four micro homes arranged in a small, unpermitted curbside community and started serving up pasta, vegetarian chili and bread.

At first, it was awkward.

One shelter resident threw some things in a backpack and said she had to go. Another said his anxiety had kicked in and he’d prefer to eat alone. The reluctant patriarch of the community, Ron, declared, “I’m not a people person,” but told Samson to tell everyone thank you.

Volunteer and NASA biomedical engineer Fernando Espinosa was unfazed. The Sinaloa transplant, who met Samson during a wind-tunnel experiment, said he’d been volunteering for about a year. He and his wife, a NASA data engineer, had been looking for ways to help after what seemed like an explosion of street homelessness during the pandemic.

“In a couple of months you could see how bad things got,” Espinosa said. “We were making bags to give to a few people here and there.”

They are far from alone in trying to turn everyday frustration and helplessness into small-scale relief. The most widespread examples are church and community groups that have long handed out food at encampments, sometimes leading to threats of citation for doing so without a permit.

Jay Samson hauls plywood for the mobile shelters that he and his fellow volunteers have been building for unhoused people in Silicon Valley. Their grassroots effort, Simply Shelter, has placed four micro homes in San Jose in addition to two set up in a parallel effort in Santa Cruz. While they haven’t encountered much formal blowback, the volunteers are still learning how to handle issues that arise after move-in, like toxic relationships, addiction or a lack of direction.

Jay Samson hauls plywood for the mobile shelters that he and his fellow volunteers have been building for unhoused people in Silicon Valley. Their grassroots effort, Simply Shelter, has placed four micro homes in San Jose in addition to two set up in a parallel effort in Santa Cruz. While they haven’t encountered much formal blowback, the volunteers are still learning how to handle issues that arise after move-in, like toxic relationships, addiction or a lack of direction.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Artists, anarchists and do-gooders have also offered makeshift shelters, food and survival gear to people living outside in San Francisco, Oakland and beyond — though they, too, run into backlash and funding constraints that routinely stifle formal service providers. Newer grassroots groups include food-focused efforts that have expanded to health care and other services, like West Oakland Punks With Lunch. Or mutual aid collectives like Watsonville’s Pajaro Rising, which protested pandemic encampment sweeps while doling out donated supplies.

Simply Shelter was born after Samson saw an interview with Londos about the first two micro homes he built in Santa Cruz in late 2020. A plan to work together emerged: Build more shelters, canvas cities to find residents in particularly dire need and start moving people in. The hope was that small units in good condition wouldn’t attract much attention from police, but wheels mounted on the units provided a way to move quickly if needed.

Residents say politicians and law enforcement have stopped to ask questions or even compliment the design, but aside from officers telling one occupant to move a unit out of downtown Santa Cruz, Samson and Londos said they’ve mostly been left alone. The bigger issue is deciding whom of the many candidates to offer the $1,000 shelters, funded by donations and the founders’ own contributions.

For Samson, who started visiting encampments to give out cash and food during a personal development course where he was urged to pursue “an idea that would help the world,” it’s been a wake-up call to a reality often reduced to stereotypes about drugs, crime and apathy.

“My relation to the homeless prior to that exercise was something similar to, ‘These people need to stop being lazy and go out there and get jobs,’” he said. “In the last year, I’ve changed a lot.”

Ron has lived in his San Jose shelter for about five months, since Samson and Londos met him on a cold December night when he was sleeping on a piece of cardboard at Diridon Station. After warming up to volunteers on their recent visit, he told Espinosa how painful it is to look back on the business he used to own, or the house he sold years ago in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“I would’ve rather never had it,” he said.

Samson bought him a wheelchair, Ron said, to help with the metal rods holding his leg together after a hit-and-run accident. But aside from trips to “the vodka store” and doctor visits to deal with other injuries, including a broken arm now in a cast, he has no idea what might come next.

Starting small

The idea for Simply Shelter dates to fall 2020, when Londos decided to build a chicken coop outside his shared Santa Cruz Mountains home. He was experimenting with slanted angles when the construction project jogged his memory: The enclosure reminded him of a bike locker he’d once slept in.

In addition to his climate activism, Londos earns a living as a disaster photographer chasing wildfires and hurricanes. He’d struggled to keep up as rents rose in his hometown of Santa Cruz. After leaving home at 18, Londos said he had apartments and a tiny home of his own, but he also couch-surfed, stayed in hotels, slept in his car and was at times forced onto the street.

He got back into housing with his girlfriend, but he noticed more people sleeping in doorways and tents along roadways during the pandemic. So Londos made his first micro homes and posted on Facebook about giving them away to a wheelchair-bound veteran and a homeless man who’d just survived a car crash.

Friends were supportive, and he raised more than $6,000 to expand the project. He didn’t expect the backlash, which ranged from heckling by neighbors to a unit stolen and left up Highway 1 to criticism on social media.

“Why get a job and try to get yourself up from being homeless,” one commenter posted on Facebook, “when someone will bring you a tiny home for free?”

“Coffin,” wrote Santa Cruz housing activist and Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry.

McHenry, whose organization has been serving free meals in Santa Cruz since 1992, said his objection was more to the original sterile gray color of the shelter and the broader fad of temporary tiny homes, which he sees as a distraction from the elephant in the room: building more housing.

Santa Cruz, like other Bay Area cities, approved more moderate- and high-income homes than required by regulators during its last state-run building cycle through 2014, but the city built just 180 of 263 low-income homes deemed necessary. Several large development proposals are currently being considered as officials stare down much higher state housing mandates.

Across the coastal county of around 275,000 people, which was home to some 2,167 homeless residents as of 2019, costly legal battles over encampments and new laws limiting camping and sleeping in vehicles have stirred debate. A 2019 grand jury report titled “Big Problem, Little Progress” tallied 279 year-round homeless shelter beds and 16 in-patient mental health beds in Santa Cruz County.

“Whatever ‘political will’ that exists to propose housing solutions is often overcome by community resistance,” the grand jury found. “Despite all the money, effort, activity and planning, it has been extremely challenging to find effective and acceptable solutions.”

While Londos and others have experimented with guerrilla tactics during the pandemic, groups like Food Not Bombs that have long operated without official permission have faced increased scrutiny.

In the past two years, McHenry said Food Not Bombs has been evicted at least eight times from serving meals on vacant lots scheduled for development or otherwise declared off-limits by officials. He’s encouraged by new groups taking action, even if it seems like the solutions reflect an increasingly bleak state of affairs.

“As a direct action, it’s a good thing dumping these around without permits,” McHenry said. “But we’re the richest country in the world.”

‘It saved my life’

Four months ago, Cory Skilling was struggling to stay dry in a tent along San Jose’s Guadalupe River Trail when Ron passed by and told him something that sounded too good to be true: “There’s housing over there.”

Skilling, a lanky 27-year-old with a nose ring and bright blue eyes, followed him to an empty box with a slanted roof and a mural of two parrots. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but he was willing to try it after sleeping outside for most of the past year.

“It saved my life,” Skilling said.

After the pandemic hit, Skilling said his hours were cut at a painting job, then a second job at a coffee shop. Unable to keep paying $1,100 a month for a room in a South San Jose house, he said he stayed for a while with family and friends over the mountains near Santa Cruz. By early 2021, Skilling said he was wandering West Cliff Drive with nowhere to go.

After seeing his hours cut at two jobs when the pandemic hit, Cory Skilling said he was unable to afford the $1,100-a-month room he was renting in a South San Jose house. He had been sleeping outside for almost a year when an unhoused neighbor led him from his tent to a mobile shelter built by local NASA engineers.

After seeing his hours cut at two jobs when the pandemic hit, Cory Skilling said he was unable to afford the $1,100-a-month room he was renting in a South San Jose house. He had been sleeping outside for almost a year when an unhoused neighbor led him from his tent to a mobile shelter built by local NASA engineers.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Samson hopes a recent manufacturing job offer at a South Bay tech company will soon allow Skilling to save up for a place and make him another success story. A veteran who stayed in a shelter in Santa Cruz also moved on to other housing, Londos said.

Often, there’s more ambiguity.

For months, Samson has been offering a shelter to 57-year-old Susie Beouch, who lives in a tent nestled in the trees behind the San Jose micro homes. It wasn’t until Beouch invited Samson into her space that he saw why she might be hesitant to downsize.

In addition to a four-person tent neatly arranged with a sleeping pad and a suitcase, she had a craft table and a camping stove to cook group meals. Last week, another tarp structure of hers housed a cat and eight kittens. Beouch said that, after years outside, she needed the bigger space to “make the best” of the situation.

“I have to be creative,” Beouch said. “It’s a struggle out here.”

After the last volunteer build day, three more micro homes were almost ready to go. Samson was still trying to move in the newest resident. He’s working to establish partnerships to help with underlying challenges, like addiction resources and connections to housing, and considering whether to turn Simply Shelter into a nonprofit. Londos still helps build shelters and hopes to add to his two micro homes in Santa Cruz.

Skilling is taking things day by day as he waits for the paperwork to clear at his new job. At around 6 feet tall, he often keeps the door to his shelter open and covered with a blanket for more space. He doodles graffiti-style figures and slogans on the walls.

“As humans we want to make a home wherever we are,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to do that.”

Lauren Hepler (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LAHepler