Students Design a Temporary Shelter to Combat LA’s Homelessness

published Feb 12, 2017
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Homes for Hope is a project designed by a class of USC architecture students. (Image credit: Homes for Hope)

There’s a homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, with an estimated 50,000 people sleeping on the streets every night—a figure that’s jumped 35% in the last year alone. Architecture students at the University of Southern California have worked with city officials and nonprofits to come up with Homes for Hope, a single-occupancy pod that can be built quickly and cheaply, and can help provide safe spaces for homeless people while more permanent solutions are in the works.

The Homeless Studio is comprised of 11 fourth-year architecture students and led by USC instructors Sofia Borges and R. Scott Mitchell. The class worked with anti-homelessness activists, officials in the city planning office, and leaders at Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit which has been building housing for the homeless since 1989.

For decades, L.A.’s homeless populations were confined to Skid Row: “It was easy for L.A. county residents to ignore the problem,” says Anne Dobson, Skid Row Housing Trust’s director of philanthropy and communications. “That’s changed in the last three to four years, where suddenly you see encampments under every overpass, by every park. It’s no longer a situation that can be ignored.”

In November, a vote passed to spend $1.2 billion over the next decade on permanent housing for the chronically homeless. Unfortunately, these projects take two to five years to get off the ground. And that’s where Homes for Hope comes in.

The students started off the semester by drafting their own prototypes, but by midterm, they all came together around one design. The project is funded by Madworkshop, a design-oriented nonprofit that focuses on supporting innovative student projects, which allowed the class to build and not just render.

Co.Design describes the final design as “a cross between a tiny house and a dorm room.” The foundation is raised two feet off the ground, which allows the unit to adapt to uneven terrain. The interior is 92 square feet, which is room for a bed, desk, chair, and shelves. The convex wall maximizes the interior space, while two windows let in light and air. “It looks comfortable, like you want to go in and take a nap,” Mitchell says. It’s also good-looking and contemporary from the outside, an important factor when combating NIMBYism.

L.A. County has strict building codes, which is why it was essential to involve city planners from the start. Their knowledge informed many of the project’s decisions, allowing them to avoid a lot of red tape.

A 30-unit complex would cost about $1 million to build—$25,000 per pod plus an inner courtyard for community space. The modular units can be built offsite and the whole thing erected in two weeks.

The team already has its first client: Ken Craft, CEO of nonprofit organization Hope of the Valley, wants to build the first Homes for Hope facility, which will be specifically targeted toward helping homeless women ages 55 and older.

Read more over on Co.Design.