Remodeled Shipping Containers, Boxcars Could Be Solutions for Expanding Homeless Shelters

Whatever Arizona’s new governor Katie Hobbs does with over 3,000 steel, 40’x8’x8.6,’ four-ton shipping containers — still arriving to wall off Mexico for 10 miles of the San Rafael Valley — is yet to be revealed.

Her predecessor, Republican Doug Ducey, in the last months of his regime was ramrodding containers into place on a 60’ strip of desert as part of former president Trump’s border wall. His executive-ordered crash project cost nearly $100 million to buy, truck in, bolt containers together and weld sheet metal over three-foot gaps from roller-coaster terrain.

A few days ago, a federal lawsuit now forces the state to remove them because they rest on federal land. Costs are estimated to be $70 million.

Previously, Hobbs has said she might move the containers and repurpose them as affordable housing. So she’s got the right idea. So have others. In the last two years the trend for buying used containers has increased for temporarily sheltering the homeless. They join tiny-house villages, RV and campsite communities, storage units, motels, and vacant factory and office buildings.

Too, the railroads are selling off their 50-foot boxcars which could double container capacity for “affordable” housing. A boxcar’s average age is 30 years, however, explaining why prices range from $2,000 to $4,000, half the cost of a container ($8,300 for 40-footers).

Hobbs even may be aware of a model for a container community: the two-year-old architectural prize-winning pair of three-floor temporary shelters for 232 of the homeless in Los Angeles’ Chinatown: the Hilda L. Solis Care First Village owned by Los Angeles county.

Looking like New Orleans’ balconied apartments, the orange and yellow shelters face each other on 60,000 square feet of the former LA sheriff’s parking lot. Built in less than six months for $57 million , workers stacked and bolted three floors of 66 containers together for the two main buildings. They overlook 20 one-story modular wooden housing units. Each end of the two buildings has wide staircases, and an exterior prefabricated elevator at each floor’s midpoint.

Interiors of the 135 square-foot rooms and 8.6-foot ceilings—including a bathroom — have four-panel vertical windows with blinds. Each room was drywalled and painted, followed by air-conditioner and heating units, a half-refrigerator and sink. Furnishings were monastic: a bed, table, microwave, and shelving. Landscaping is a grassy courtyard between the two buildings, raised planters of herbs, and a tree at each end of the turf.

A sizable modular administration building houses offices for intakes, case records, counseling and healthcare services, as well as a laundry, commercial kitchen, and dining room. It has 24-hour security. The only drawback is that the four-acres are contaminated requiring an onsite treatment plant to “manage” the soil underneath the complex.

Before apartment builders rush to apply the Solis model for expanding units with extra containers, a few caveats need to be weighed against bargain-basement cost, availability, and transport. Many containers have been found to be toxic , their plywood flooring prone to fires. Inside temperatures could reach 135ºF with an AC breakdown. Lifespan is 10 to 15 years even with regular maintenance.

So Hobbs can convert containers—probably for permanent, low-income housing—into a Solis-like suburb. Or buy and remodel boxcars (and cabooses) for the homeless. Both are a vast improvement over packed, vermin-infested, crime-ridden shelters and the inhumane outdoor measures taken by at least two major cities—LA and Portland, OR. They are beset by sidewalk squatters, tent encampments, and RV settlers, all drawn to the West Coast’s mild, year-round temperatures, and social services. Current homeless populations: LA, at least 40,000; Portland, 5,228 and 800 encampments.

They’re scarcely alone. Last year, 326,126 were homeless, New York City leading with 102,656 packed in shelters and uncounted thousands on streets or subways. All cities with a “homeless problem” are being pressured by complaints from owners of small and large downtown businesses about doorways blocked by transients, trash, and toileting. Echoing Malthus’ “final solution,” they want the homeless gone forever, driven to residential neighborhoods or beyond the city limits. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

In Los Angeles, the ACLU of Southern California issued a report last year about police and sheriff’s deputies first harassing the homeless, then bulldozing encampments and seizing belongings. If victims persisted in living on the streets, they were banished by threats of citations to the Mojave Desert near Lancaster and Palmdale in unincorporated, East Los Angeles County.

LA’s new mayor, Karen Bass declared at her inauguration that her “first act as mayor will be to declare a state of emergency on homelessness.” Heavy emphasis was laid on sheltering 15,000 by the end of her first year. During her campaign, she mused to the Los Angeles Times: “There’s a big chunk of land in Palmdale and maybe we could create a village out there.” Her vice mayor added that LA owns “thousands of acres in Palmdale.”

Lancaster (pop: 176,892) is only nine miles down the highway from Palmdale (pop: 172,790), and the first to revolt against Bass (local newspaper headline: “Homeless ‘Invasion’ is coming”). Its outraged city council just voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency to protect it from “an incursion” of LA’s homeless. Palmdale’s council probably won’t be far behind.

Up in Portland meantime, its city council was voting to spend $27 million chiefly to fund Mayor Ted Wheeler’s resolution that within 18 months the city would set up three, two- to four-acre sanctioned campsites. Each would eventually contain 100 tents and 250 people and perhaps expansion to three additional sites. Local channel KGW’s Blair Best reported that: “Residents will have access to food, case managers and mental health and substance-abuse treatment, and…on-site and perimeter [neighborhood] security.” Some $750,000 is allocated for private-security forces in designated neighborhoods.

Once the campgrounds are open, Wheeler warned that like New York City, the police will do street sweeps and arrest the homeless refusing to leave unless they either agreed to use city shelters or moved to the camps—no matter what the Constitutional ramifications are. Multnomah County which encompasses Portland, spent $2 million , two years ago to distribute 22,700 tents and 69,514 tarps to the homeless. Under Wheeler’s policy, most probably will wind up in landfills.

A major factor in this tragic dilemma is the fury of many neighbors where these complexes and campsites are to be located. The chief complaint against the homeless aside from unsightliness is the alleged increases in crime, drug use, garbage, and hygiene. Most of all, it’s the suspicion that any kind of congregate housing lowers property values and steals their taxpayer dollars.

A middle-class Portland resident typified that stereotypic view: “I live in this neighborhood, and I think it’s a very nice neighborhood. I would not want to have a large group of homeless around here. I think you would have the crime go up, that’s the main thing.”

And a news release from the city of Lancaster addressed Mayor Bass’s plans for neighboring Palmdale:

A large homeless population in one area could lead to increased crime and safety concerns and potential damage to property values. This could be a major concern for residents and businesses in the area, and it’s an issue Lancaster has already been struggling to support with its existing unhoused population. There are also serious health concerns for the homeless population who would be moved from a climate ranging from 60-80 degrees annually to the high desert which experiences extreme weather highs and lows.

But this view of homeless communities is not necessarily true at all, considering that, say, sober houses instantly boot troublemakers and backsliding alcoholics/addicts from the premises. There’s rarely noise nor traffic congestion. Can that be said for fraternity and sorority houses in residential neighorhoods? Too, Solis-type facilities offer only temporary housing, social services, and security to move residents into productive lives.

Those experiencing eviction because of layoffs, business bankruptcies, or acquisitions can readily identify with the plight of the homeless in those settings. Fortunately, many speak up in their defense at public meetings or in neighborhood informational canvassing—or take the time and make the effort to reach out on their behalf.

CounterPunch writer Desiree Hellegers set such myth-makers straight a few days ago: “Never mind that the Pacific Northwest is choc-o-bloc with models of tent cities and tiny- house communities that are democratically run, generally with elected councils: Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream 2, SHARE-WHEEL, etc. None of them is perfect, but they are safer and infinitely more empowering, humane, healing, and effective, and less likely to violate the Geneva Conventions than what Wheeler & Co. have in mind.”

And a Los Angeles tiny-house resident reminded the fearful or judgmental about shelter living: “For people who get their noses up in the air, this can happen to anybody.” That’s certainly true for many of the 3.8 million living paycheck to paycheck and either are about to be evicted because the American Rescue Plan’s rent-moratorium has expired , or the 8.5 million behind on rent, as well as those facing significant rent increases. Add to those figures the 1.5 million estimated to lose their jobs because the Federal Reserve’s continuing interest-rate hikes mean small and large companies can’t afford to expand operations, nor are startups able to raise capital.

Perhaps it’s time to educate “NIMBYs” (“Not in My Backyard”) and the general public about who most of the homeless are in those enclosures by WPA-like posters (“We’ve Been Downsized or Evicted, But Are Leaving Shortly!”) spread around affected neighborhoods.

Facing the prospect of a nation of Hoovervilles drawing violent reactions from local residents, a frightened President Biden’s team just launched a plan to reduce homelessness by 25 percent in 2025: the All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness . Unfortunately, nothing was said about funding or what would happen to the remaining 75 percent.

That’s because the plan was just a heavily researched “blueprint” for state and local governments to use as models “for addressing homelessness in their communities.” Said Biden: “ it is not only getting people into housing, but also ensuring they have access to the support, services, and income that allow them to thrive.”

Forget any Executive Order to finance a New Deal for jobs and housing, as president Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) did to help solve the Great Depression of the 1930s.

At bottom, the major question involving the overall homeless situation is almost never asked because it involves the responsibility of corporate America: What good is housing if people lack jobs to make rent or mortgage payments? To say nothing of buying basics.

FDR’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) did both. It hired and trained 8.5 million of the unemployed for past and new federal programs. They ranged from infrastructure and environment to park systems and artists/writers projects. His FHA low-cost home-buying loans have housed 44 million since 1934, spurring massive house construction and providing capital for 4.8 million rental units—not counting residential care facilities, hospitals, and manufactured houses.

Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure program could have done the same. But he farmed it out to private interests. They might add and train a few thousand new employees, yet hardly on a WPA scale. If he were an FDR, he would have had the courage to shift part of the Pentagon’s FY2023 $858 billion budget allocation to civilians—as did Trump to spend more than $12 billion on his porous wall—to provide thousands of construction jobs and affordable housing for the homeless.

For the Pentagon, this tactic also might stifle increasing public opposition about its bloated, unaudited budget by showcasing its contribution to “domestic tranquility,” as the Constitution’s preamble puts it. Some $152 billion of next year’s funding—a 20 percent increase—goes for construction and veterans. That’s how those 750 overseas bases and at home were built by its engineers, equipment and supplies, and continue to be maintained. It doesn’t specify constructing what so the door is wide open to building affordable houses or rent-controlled apartment buildings for America’s homeless.

Using Trump’s rationale that his wall would defend the nation from an invasion of illegals, Biden now has precedent to declare such a neoWPA jobs-and-housing project would “provide for the common defense” of this nation and stop any domestic upheaval. After all, a major recession could trigger a massive uprising dwarfing today’s major strikes. So could climate-change migrations around the states.

As the Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Liz Theoharis reminds us: “In the coming years, movements dedicated to democracy and our economic flourishing need to invest time and resources in building permanently organized communities to help meet the daily needs of impacted Americans, while offering a sense of what democracy looks like in practice, up close and personal.”

To this, add the famous admonition to us by that man born into homelessness and persecution: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Barbara G. Ellis, Ph.D, is the principal of a Portland (OR) writing/pr firm, a long-time writer and journalism professor, a Pulitzer nominee, and now an online free-lancer. Read other articles by Barbara.