The tiny homes at the Alexandria Park village.(Morgan Lieberman / Los Angeles Times)

Opinion

Opinion: A new twist on an old plan offers hope to the homeless

The Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village brings a new option for homeless people.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/sylvieturk/" target="_self">Sylvie Turk</a>

Sylvie Turk

February 5, 2022

In the last week of April, Los Angeles firm Lehrer Architects announced the official opening of the Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village, a collection of 103 homes to be used as transitional housing for local unhoused residents in North Hollywood.

The project, which took 13 weeks to build, consists of rows of colorful structures designed by Pallet, a Washington company that makes homeless and disaster response temporary shelters. Each one is 8×8 feet, takes less than an hour to set up and is durable enough to last 10 years.

Individual tiny homes in a communal space allow homeless individuals to have the dignity and safety of their own space while benefiting from a community and the services Alexandria provides: 3 meals a day, a shared kitchen and a bathroom as well as individualized support.

Pallet’s goal with Alexandria Park is to provide a solution to the gap between living in a shelter or on the street and permanent housing for homeless members of the community. The shelter experience disincentivizes many homeless individuals from engaging with supportive services.

In addition to being “overrun by lice, bedbugs, violence and drugs,” many people don’t feel comfortable staying in high-density spaces with dozens of other individuals, especially since they typically aren’t permitted to bring some personal belongings and pets.

Concerningly, even if the shelter phase is more desirable, the city hasn’t found a way to make it constructive enough to bridge the divide between short-term housing and long-term solutions. This is because they lack the supportive services most individuals need to transition back into the community.

In Los Angeles, an unproductive shelter experience has also fed the disconnect between the availability of permanent housing and the people who can access it. That’s why a program that addresses the need for a transitional step and supplies homeless individuals with the tools they need to prepare for permanent housing is so important.

The program at Alexandria lasts around 3 months, and during that time, homeless individuals have access to a variety of social services including case management, housing navigation, substance abuse counseling and job training. Alexandria provides 24-hour security, residents can lock their doors from inside and curfew lasts from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., with exceptions for work schedules. Residents are also permitted to bring pets, and couples are allowed to live together.

The project is pricey, as total construction costs came out to $8.6 million, or $43,000 per bed, assuming the 200 projected individuals end up being housed there. Running the site takes $55 per person per day.

Politically, the project has divided the city on a number of grounds: policymakers have debated the price of such programs, the mayor has had to reconcile transitional housing with his homelessness plan and citizens living in areas surrounding the tiny communities currently being built have had qualms about the project. But the biggest challenge isn’t financing or neighborhood politics — it’s echoes of the past.

Alexandria Park shares a lot of features with the “A Bridge Home” program Mayor Garcetti announced in 2018. Branded as his signature homelessness plan, the nearly $200 million project aimed to open an interim housing facility in each city council district. In the past two years, over 20 sites have been completed, adding almost 2,000 new shelter beds to the city.

Like Alexandria, the program length is three months, and residents have access to three meals a day, a caseworker and healthcare. However, the Bridge Home shelters haven’t been anywhere near as successful as the city hoped. Of the 1,500 people who have stayed in the shelters, only 15% have moved on to permanent housing.

The inability of the city to deliver on its past promises regarding comparable programs is concerning. It raises doubts about the efficacy of Alexandria and similar interim housing projects the city is considering.

However, what makes Alexandria unique is the shelter operator. Instead of being city-run, the Tiny Home Village is operated by Hope of the Valley, a faith-based nonprofit whose goal is to prevent, reduce and eliminate poverty, hunger and homelessness. The organization’s services focus on respecting the dignity of the individuals they work with.

Founded in 2009, Hope of the Valley now runs 13 shelters, 2 Access Centers and a job center, amounting to 1,040 beds per night. In 2021, the organization opened four Tiny Home Village sites in North Hollywood, Reseda, Tarzana and Highland Park.

Crucially, the nonprofit works with its neighbors to guarantee the experience isn’t disruptive to the surrounding community. In North Hollywood, complaints from neighboring business owners led to Hope of the Valley increasing security. The neighbor was so pleased with the response that he donated to the organization.

The city plans to use Alexandria as a model for turning unused public spaces into housing. That means the success of the program is key not only for the individuals engaging in it but for the rest of the city looking for a solution to a crisis that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and years of policy that has yet to fully address the issue.

Hope of the Valley’s track record and commitment to serving the community are good signs going forward. While only time will tell how helpful Alexandria Park’s program will be, its support services and care are encouraging, as is the willingness of the city to learn from past mistakes and engage with established organizations to improve.

Even more heartening is the Hope of the Valley’s commitment to reaffirming the dignity of homeless individuals, which signals that Alexandria’s residents will be well supported during their stays. There will undoubtedly be challenges to the operation of Alexandria and the future Tiny Home Villages.

Even so, years of experience and success with interim housing mean Hope of the Valley is well equipped to respond. This wave of Tiny Home Villages solidifies a welcome change in Los Angeles’ response to homelessness, emphasizing the importance of respectful, dignified solutions.

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