All Elvis Summers says he wants to do is provide homeless people with a safe alternative to sleeping in doorways and on bus benches. But for the past six months, the activist has been at war with the city of Los Angeles over his Tiny House Project, an initiative he launched in 2015 to build small houses for folks who’ve fallen on tough times.
Summers spent the past year crafting 37 candy-colored buildings for homeless people in L.A. The structures could be seen on city streets and freeway overpasses across impoverished South Los Angeles. But in early February, city sanitation workers began seizing the six-by-10-foot lodgings, citing a new ordinance that classifies them as bulky items that can be removed during street cleanups.
“You don’t have any legal grounds to take this [home], all you can do is make me move it. Me and my team are here now, and I will happily move it,” Summers told TakePart, recounting his conversation with L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson on Feb. 9. “They refused. They just took them.” Summers said the city gave him 24 hours’ notice to move another eight houses.
Because of the crackdown, Summers said he has had to personally evict 11 people from his tiny homes, several of whom were elderly and two of whom were veterans. He plans to file a class-action lawsuit against the city.
Ironically, noted Summers, one removal of the houses in February transpired on the same day Mayor Eric Garcetti was unveiling his $2 billion plan to reduce the city’s homeless population. L.A. is the nation’s homelessness capital, with an estimated 40,000 people sleeping on the street each night. Many of them have serious physical or mental health problems.
Garcetti’s plan includes finding funding for short-term rental subsidies, creating centers for storage and bathing, and keeping winter shelters open longer, but it doesn’t include building houses for the homeless. Several other cities across the nation that have supported tiny houses have gotten people off the streets and saved taxpayers money. That’s because when homeless people stay out of the elements, they make fewer trips to the hospital and fewer calls for emergency services.
In Austin, Texas, developers have estimated the city will save $10 million in medical costs thanks to a homeless village of 250 tiny houses. Similarly, an 85-unit housing complex for the homeless in Charlotte, North Carolina, saved the city $1.8 million in health and law enforcement expenses. A tiny house village in Portland, Oregon—known as “Dignity Village”—has also been a huge success for the 15 years it’s been around, operating on an annual budget of less than $30,000.
Other places that have implemented “Housing First” strategies to provide their homeless with no-strings-attached permanent housing have seen taxpayer costs plummet. Seattle was spending about $4,000 per homeless person per month, but that dropped to $958 after the city implemented Housing First. In Rhode Island, the $2,600 monthly cost of services for a chronically homeless person fell to about $1,800.
Summers, who grew up in Los Angeles, told TakePart he has been homeless several times, so he knows firsthand what it’s like to not have a bed to sleep in. He said he remembers the feeling of sleeping on a dock behind a movie theatre in neighboring Orange County and making a makeshift bed out of carpet from a nearby Dumpster.
He recalled the difficulties of bathing in sinks or fountains like a “bird bath” when he was homeless. “People will be self-motivated to get themselves healed if they bathe and wash their clothes. You can’t get a job if you stink,” he said.
After learning last April that Smokie, a well-loved woman in his neighborhood, had nowhere to live, he built his first tiny house for her. The project took off on social media, and he raised almost $100,000 in donations to build more of the structures.
L.A. City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Curren Price are the two most vocal opponents of Summers’ project. “I’m getting complaints from constituents who have to walk into the streets to avoid them,” Price told the Los Angeles Times in February. At a city meeting last August, Buscaino said the structures are “not the real estate I’m looking for in my district” and that the “only legal use for these is for dogs.” Buscaino and Price did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment.
The two councilmembers and other city officials say Summers’ houses can pose safety risks to residents. Authorities have confiscated a gun and drug-related items from some of the houses, and some area residents have complained about prostitution and narcotics dealing in the homes, according to the Times.
Summers acknowledged the drug problem among the homeless community but argued that casting people back onto the streets is not the way to solve it. “Many of the people have drug addictions that they have no resources to escape from. They want to get sober but don’t have the means to, and when they do, they are forced to live back on the streets where all the dealers roam,” he said. As for the gun removed from one of the houses by law enforcement officers in February, it was a replica Airsoft gun that shoots CO2 pellets, Summers said.
The activist hopes the city eases its stance on his tiny houses, but in the meantime he plans to buy private land in the city to set up a “village” for the homeless. The village will have more tiny homes and larger, camper-like structures with showers and toilets.
“Even if I have to do it all myself, buying private land and doing it that way, I will,” Summers said. “Either way, I am going to help these people. I won’t turn my back on them.”