Archive for the ‘california’ Category

SpotUS: The Homeless Triangle: San Francisco, Los Angeles and Prison

Spot.Us is a group that helps independent journalists raise money for investigative stories. Here’s one that caught my eye: A practicing internist physician named R. Jan Gurley wants to take a close look at what happens after a person leaves prison, say, after two years behind bars, with only 200 bucks in their pocket. Her idea is to investigate the notion of “homeless churn,” the unfortunate social phenomenon that might occur when people are released from prison without the social tools or resources to make it on the outside.

There are tens of thousands of prisoners released annually to the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Where do they end up, and how many of them end up back in prison? Ms. Gurley intends to find out. If you would like to help fund her effort to raise the $1200 needed to research and write the story, you can donate as little as $5 or as much as you want. You can also answer a survey at the Spot.Us site and provide credits toward the funding of her investigation.

R. Jan Gurley is a physician who sees patients in a homeless clinic for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday magazine and the New England Journal of Medicine.

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Habitat for Humanity: A Community Model for Activism

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER

Imagine putting 500 hours of sweat equity into building a community of homes and not knowing which one will be yours. That’s the chance that Habitat for Humanity asks people to take, and if things in Pacoima are any indication, it’s a chance that pays off quite well.

Habitat is building a community of three- and four-bedroom homes in Pacoima, which is 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. A group of volunteers and future residents work on all the homes simultaneously, not knowing what home will be assigned to whom. When construction’s done and families are selected to move in, they pay less than a renter would, because they receive a Habitat for Humanity no-profit, no-interest loan. Their “down payment” was the 500 hours they devoted to building the homes together. Those are good figures for the working poor, but the community benefits are even more encouraging.

Jessica Woywode, a recent graduate with a master’s degree in urban planning who now works for Habitat as a Community Development and Planning Associate, was digging in the community garden onsite the day I visited. She has found that people who work together on gardens tend to get together on other things, like helping kids stay in school. “We’ve found that 100 percent of the kids who live in this community graduate from high school.” The rate for the Pacoima area generally is just a 43 percent graduation rate. “Ninety-two percent of our high school graduates go on to college. We have a zero-percent divorce rate, a zero-percent teenage pregnancy rate,” she said. “We believe that’s because of the Habitat program.”

The program involves creating an enriched neighborhood, according to Donna Deutchman, CEO of Habitat for Humanity San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valley. “You bring a family in and give them an opportunity to change their lives, and it’s them as the catalyst.” In this Habitat community, every family gets a free computer and reps from area colleges come in and teach the families how to do internet research. Fresh fruits and vegetables come from the community garden and the families get access to dental and health care.

“We give them access and they fly with it.” – Donna Deutchman

Middle and upper class families know all about that sort of access to services – they just call it “regular, everyday life.” But for the working poor who are raising children, such access can be elusive. But once access is grasped by a family and put into practice, says Deutchman, it can change how a family sees itself in the world.

On the day I visited the worksite, it was during a period of a few days when more than 500 women came together to frame out six new homes in Pacoima. The people carting lumber, drilling and hammering were executives, volunteers and future residents all working together. Among the workers was Rashi Kallur, an assistant VP and Community Relations Officer at Citi. After receiving a few hours’ training on a circular saw, she was doing an impressively efficient job for a first-timer. “It’s personally very rewarding,” she said. “When I actually put in my effort I understand what is behind construction and what does it take. It gives you more of an understanding and value, and you don’t take things for granted.” She got right back to work, transforming as I watched from a first-timer into a pro.

Citi is anything but a first-timer with Habitat. Rashi Kallur told me that Citi has done 30 builds with Habitat in the past five years or so, and they are a sponsor of the Pacoima build. So far, Habitat for Humanity has built a total of 61 homes in Pacoima; 37 of those homes are occupied and 24 more to be completed this year. That will put the San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valleys Habitat in a select club: They will have built 100 homes in their area, and worldwide only 5% of Habitat affiliates have achieved that milestone. The model for community construction, extended into community services, becomes community change.

“We are breaking down the stereotypes and breaking down the way the parents and children view society. Working side by side with presidents of companies, totally different backgrounds, all working on their house – it totally changes their perception of what the world is,” Jessica Woywode said.

Public Architecture Videocast

Public Architecture has posted its first Videocast.  It’s a great overview of what they do and you get a tour of their offices, too.  Check it out.


Video by Corina Gamma

Through photography and filmmaking, Corina Gamma explores the many concepts of home. She conceptualizes home as not only a physical condition, but also as a state of mind. In her film documentary Ties on a Fence Corina Gamma captures the disenfranchised women of Skid Row in Los Angeles, their daily experiences and everyday struggles. Many of the interviews are articulated through conversations, poetry, and photographs taken by the women. “Ties on a Fence” was featured in nine film festivals nationwide and won awards for best documentary at the Black Earth Film Festival and also at the Santa Clarita Film Festival. Corina edited a special sequence from the film for us to present to you on SHELTER.

Only six city blocks from the financial district of downtown Los Angeles is “Skid Row,” an area with a large concentration of missions and shelters, which makes it the largest emergency-service dependent community in the United States. These services keep the homeless in a very isolated area.  This is the area Corina focuses on in her film. Some estimates have it that 35 to 45 percent of homeless people in Los Angeles County are women. “Ties on a Fence” was facilitated by the Downtown Women’s Center.

Motor Home Housing Launch Huge Success


L-R: Ed, Mikey, Bob, Maria, Victoria & Connor

Written by Bob Ballard of the Hearts Of Fire Project

Wow! What an amazing day we had at the launch of our new Motor Home Housing Program. This past Saturday, January 30 we awarded a motor home to Maria Pollack and her son Mikey at a ceremony hosted by Regalo Virgin Olive Oil. Representatives from three local newspapers covered the event as well as the local access TV station. More links to those stories at the end of this article.

Maria and her son were overjoyed when they saw the motor home; tears rolled down her face as she expressed her gratitude to everyone involved. Ed and Connie Bermudez donated the RV a few weeks ago. Ed wanted it to go to a homeless family. It was his generosity that started the program.

Victoria Stratton is Maria’s friend and sponsor. Victoria volunteers with Casa Esperanza homeless shelter in Santa Barbara where she heard about our program. She contacted me and told me about Maria and her son Mikey. Like many homeless people, Maria is employed but doesn’t earn enough money to rent an apartment or even buy a car. Maria met Victoria at church a year or so ago and they became friends. In addition to connecting Maria with our program, Victoria is providing a private parking place for the motor home on her property.

More families have contacted us who want to participate in this program. We are looking for more late model motor homes in good shape and people to help us give them a second life.  We are also need places to store the RV’s temporarily while we get them ready to distribute to homeless families. If you can help, please call our toll free message line at 877-827-2012 or email us at

Media Links for further information:

Ventura County Star

Ventura County Reporter

Video (courtesy of Barrett Productions)

Slide Show Media: Mike at River Haven

River Haven is a transitional community for people dealing with the issues of homelessness. Last September, World Shelters and The Turning Point Foundation teamed up with hundreds of volunteers to revitalize River Haven, which was previously functioning as a tent city encampment. The volunteers installed 19 geodesic structures called U-Domes, and later on others came by to improve the landscaping, provide beds, gas grills, a refrigerator, and offer other aspects of shelter many of us might take for granted. This is the first in what we intend to be a series of profile pieces about people who are living at River Haven and in other communities.

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Running the Numbers

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER.

How many homeless people are there in the United States? It’s a tricky question to answer, but I want to try running some numbers past you. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has some good ones to get this started. They estimate there are 672,000 people on the streets every night. Of those 672,000, 37% are believed to be homeless families, usually a woman with one or two children.

Most homeless people are, as you might expect, looking for shelter in cities. But at least 20 percent of them are in rural areas, and that number may be even higher because the more remote the area, the harder it is to count the homeless who may be living there.

The number one state, with the most homeless of all? California.

That’s amazing to me: Our once-prosperous state, home to much innovation, money and creative energy, has become the homeless capital of America. According to some observers, it might be the nation’s first state to fail.

What I’ve written above are the most solid numbers I could find, and they’re from two years ago – the last time anybody compiled state-by-state data. Drawing from those 2007 numbers again, we learn that 42% of homeless people are living on the street, but more than half – 58% – are in transitional housing. That’s the spark of good news I think – because many believe that transitional, even temporary housing, is the way to help solve homelessness. To focus on that, let’s go to Ventura, California.

In Ventura, the numbers are newer, drawn from data gathered this year in the last week of January. On a given day, there are about 2200 homeless children and adults on the streets in Ventura. (Federal estimates put the number even higher, at more than 8,000, according to the Ventura County Star.) Most of those children and adults, 73%, are living on the streets but the remainder, a little over 25%, have found some kind of shelter, some in temporary accommodations such as River Haven.

Some experts believe that 18% of the homeless population are “chronically” homeless, meaning that they are mentally ill or otherwise unable to care for themselves.

There’s debate on that number, but even if it’s rough, it still means that a lot of homeless people are people who may have slipped into a tough position and are trying to work their way out. With the economy still in slow recovery mode, it means that we have a crisis on low simmer that’s not going to go away. More families are going to be looking for shelter.

This is where the architects and designers can step in with inventive solutions. Bruce LeBel of World Shelters recently put up another round of housing in Arcata. (Working with the Turning Point Foundation, Bruce’s company World Shelters revitalized the River Haven community in Ventura, California.) Vinay Gupta has long been developing the Hexayurt, a shelter that can be made from plywood, composites, hexacomb cardboard and other materials. He sees Hexayurts as a solution for regions with large scale rehousing needs, such as Bangladesh. They’ve also been used at Burning Man.  Vinay believes in open source design – anybody can build a Hexayurt – and many have!

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The River Haven Community

mike-4750Written by Lee Schneider, director of the film SHELTER.

I didn’t know you could play a Celine Dion CD off a car battery. But Mike Casper has figured out a way to do it. He’s one of twenty or so residents of River Haven, a transitional encampment in Ventura County, California.  River Haven has been around for four years, but recently Mike was among those who helped radically change it.

At the end of September, several hundred volunteers came to River Haven for a day, erected 19 pre-fabricated U-Dome residences from World Shelters, then had some pizza for lunch and moved on. Of course, the job wasn’t over. Some people had to come back to rebuild the platforms on which the dome homes rested. Others brought flowers and resealed doors and caulked leaks. The U-Domes experience shows that you can get pretty close to building a village in a day, but it takes a longer commitment to make the village work for the residents.

mike-4743Mike Casper has seen the “old” River Haven when it was just a tent city, a sea of mud and leaky canvas, and he helped put up the new River Haven, which looks something like a space village, particularly at night, when the interiors of the domes are lighted from within. Mike has refurbished a couple of propane grills for cooking, fired up the Honda generator to put a charge on the 12-volt car batteries that power his and other residents’ DVD/CD players, and has even found some time for filing. That’s right, filing.  “Somebody donated these filing cabinets. I’ve been putting our stuff in them,” he said. The idea amuses him. But he likes to keep busy.

Before he lost his house, Mike told me, he was a building contractor with a Beverly Hills clientele. Working with his hands comes naturally to him.

He’s put his skills to work at River Haven, contributing to the community.  Corliss Porter, the Clinical Director at Turning Point Foundation, was the project coordinator on the one-day U-Dome installation, and she’s a key player in the ongoing administration of River Haven. She spent two rainy nights in a River Haven dome and found it pretty comfortable. “One little kerosene lantern warmed the place up even with wind,” she said. But she’s also spent more than two decades managing psychosocial rehabilitation services. The question that’s occupied her all those years is this: “How do you create a sane community to support personal growth?”

Personal growth comes, she’s found, when external structures are in place. “If the external structure is clear and fair, above all fair, that affects how people start working on their internal chaos.”

reportcards-4780A resident has found that if you hang up a few mementos, like your old grade school report cards, a dome can  feel like home.

Put any of us out on the street, Corliss explained, and in two weeks or less our thinking becomes minute-to-minute. How do I get warm? Where do I go to the bathroom? Where’s my next meal coming from? “People on the street have a basic form of PTSD. [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Some of them more, some of them less.”

In that situation, you don’t make decisions coming from your best emotional state. You can’t focus on the problem – it simply overwhelms you. But with some structure and a sense of community such as River Haven provides, you have a shot at staying focused, at transitioning, at beginning to heal.

Last year at River Haven, they started doing peer mediation training for residents. “It altered the community,” Corliss said. “It shifted the way they attended to the problems and the community came along with it.”

River Haven residents pay $250 monthly rent. They have to stay clean and sober, participate in community meetings, and keep looking for work. Finding work – tough in this economic climate. “A lot of people are out of work these days,” Mike Casper told me. He’s keeping busy. There’s still a lot to do at River Haven, now that the new refrigerator that runs on propane has been donated.


Lee Schneider is the founder of DocuCinema, a media production company based in Los Angeles.  Partnered with Adventure Picures, the company is producing the movie SHELTER.

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Housing Fresno’s Homeless: A tale of lawsuits, lost identity and innovation


Photo by Jeff Pflueger

Written by Jeff Pflueger

Fresno, California

The city of Fresno, California is struggling under enormous pressures due to poverty.

A 2006 Brookings Institution report, using 2000 census data, ranks Fresno as having the 4th highest poverty rate in the nation – at 26.2%. But Fresno ranks 1st on a perhaps more important figure; with a 43.5% concentrated poverty rate, or the percentage of poor individuals in high-poverty neighborhoods, Fresno’s poor are geographically concentrated like nowhere else in the nation.

By city estimates, roughly one in a hundred people in Fresno, California are homeless. According to some homeless advocates the number is much higher; if the homeless also includes the people who are “displaced,” i.e. without a home, but living temporarily in some form of shelter like a motel room, the number could be as high as 1 in 20.

Across the city homeless encampments have swelled into villages. Each has is name like “The Hill,” “New Jack City,” and “F Street.”

They are comprised mostly of camping tents packed closely together. Sleeping bags, blankets and tarps are often draped over the tents to provide additional insulation and weather proofing. Some homes within the encampments are shanties made of freely available materials such as pallets, plywood and blankets.

Fresno, Cal Trans and the Fresno Police addressed the homeless situation by conducting coordinated “sweeps” of the encampments. After police ordered residents to leave, bulldozers scooped up entire settlements and literally threw them away. People were stripped of everything that they owned – and literally their identity – as birth certificates, identification, family photos, along with their meager possessions were heaped into bins destined for the landfill.

In October of 2006, a Federal Judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop the city from its illegal sweeps. Soon after, the homeless of Fresno won a rare victory: a $2.35 million dollar class action lawsuit against the city of Fresno and Cal Trans. Funds from the lawsuit went to the individuals whose possessions were destroyed in the illegal sweeps, as well as into an account to provide housing and medical care for the individuals in the class.


Photo by Jeff Pflueger

Since the settlement, the city of Fresno has changed its behavior. Fresno now pays consenting motels $65 a night to house a homeless person. After the voucher period is over, the people are most often back on the streets. Many of these hotels are dangerously run down. Recently, the city of Fresno closed the “StoryLand Inn,” one of the voucher motels, evicting as many as 100 residents for building code violations regarding mold, broken windows, and bad plumbing.

Fresno also began housing homeless people in tool sheds.

In October 2009, Fresno dismantled the “H Street” camp and relocated the estimated 150 residents at a cost of $700,000. Many of H Street residents were moved into “The Village of Hope”, a settlement made of dozens of plywood tool sheds packed into two fenced lots. Residents live two to a shed, without electricity, water, or insulation. Nobody can be in a shed between the hours of 8am to 5pm.

As bleak and violent as the homeless situation has become in Fresno, Fresno is a city desperately in need of creative solutions. Local architect Art Dyson believes that he can help.

After Dyson received a Masters of Architecture, he served his architectural apprenticeships with Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, and William Gray Purcell. His work has received over 150 local, state, national, and international design awards and he is featured in more than 400 publications and in over two dozen books.

If anything, Dyson’s work is integrative, drawing upon many traditions and ideas. His approach to helping the homeless situation is perhaps the most integrative of all – and the most visionary.

“All marvels of history would have been history without bold decisions,” Dyson writes in the proposal for his project to help the homeless situation.

Dyson is creating a visionary program through Fresno Pacific University. The program is interdisciplinary, integrating sociology, anthropology, planning, architecture, and revolutionary ideas from sustainable building to create “Eco Villages” to house the homeless. The students in the program will design and ultimately build the villages with the assistance of volunteers and the homeless themselves.

Each village will be limited to 20 residents. Small private shelters, built from reused and sustainable materials, will be arranged around common community space and centered on a small scale local economy such as the production of bamboo, and crafts created from bamboo.


Photo by Jeff Pflueger

Due to the recent housing collapse, land is cheap in Fresno, and the villages themselves can be built for next to nothing claims Dyson, since the materials will be either reused or donated.

Dyson dreams that the villages will be easily replicable, making their work in Fresno a model for how cities around the globe can help people without homes.

As ambitious and technical his plans are, Dyson’s vision is rooted in a deeper passion about engaging and connecting people experientially through the process of the project. Dyson writes in his proposal, “The program will help cultivate a culture of mutual acceptance and respect, solidarity and compassion, open communication and cross-cultural outreach by example. The program will serve as a catalyst to produce the highest aspirations of humanity into a practical reality.”

The program has already started. Al Williams and Cynthia Green, two of the homeless people named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Fresno for the sweeps of the encampments, were able to collectively invest $16,000 to purchase a home that will become the Pamela Kincaid Neighborhood Center.

Art Dyson and some other investors also chipped in to purchase the $28,000 dollar home that sits on 1/3 of an acre. The center is to be a place to help the homeless.

Dyson already has plans drawn for the development of the center and is actively looking for land now to allow his students and the Fresno community to build the first of the Eco Villages in Fresno.


Jeff Pflueger is a San Francisco based photographer with work published in the New York Times, National Geographic Adventure and other publications. This piece is from Jeff’s personal project about poverty in California. Read more about the project at

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