For the Mad Housers of Atlanta, clients don’t pay and developers don’t make any money.
That’s because this all-volunteer non-profit builds shelter for homeless people across the Atlanta metropolitan area on empty municipal land, abandoned lots, and disused, edge-properties.
They specialize in wood-framed huts, 6 x 8 x 10, with a gabled roof, sleeping loft, locking door, and wood burning stove for both heat and cooking. They cost about $400, take a few hours to assemble and require almost no technical building knowledge. The Mad Housers assemble a dozen or so a year. Lately, they’ve been posting the huts’ blueprints and assembly instructions online, along with 3-D models that use Google SketchUp, in the hopes that homelessness advocates elsewhere can use their designs. Not surprisingly, a handful of their core group of 15 or so volunteers are architects. In total, about 100 people volunteer for the Mad Housers.
The Mad Housers build in already-established homeless encampments, and after they do, they see the residents, like all homeowners, make these simple structures their own. Salma Abdulrahman, the organization’s president, has seen their clients (as the Mad Housers are adamant about calling them) install brick patios, connect their huts to structures they made themselves, raise chickens, grow a garden, and turn an old hut into a makeshift library for the rest of the people in the homeless camp. “For years we’ve had people wanting to donate books to that little hut library,” she says.
The Mad Housers will build for camps as large as 12 people or as small as one person, but the factor that makes any settlement viable to build on is community stability. The more cooperative and established any group of homeless clients are, the more likely the Mad Housers’ investments of time, sweat, and money will be preserved and maintained.
If you can get the person who actually owns the land the clients are living on to sign on, that’s even better.
The Mad Housers work through the potential legal hazards of further entrenching homeless camps by treading only where they are welcome or at least tolerated. They try to get the landowner’s permission, or at least make sure the owner is aware of the Mad Housers’ structures. A lot of landowners simply look the other way at entrenched homeless camps. Police, Abdulraman says, often prefer it when homeless people are based at a stable location, as opposed to wandering the streets. If a landowner asks them to take a hut down, they always comply. “Our belief is that shelter is a basic human right, and we are trying to address that, but not if it’s going to take someone being on someone’s property against their will,” she says. They don’t moralize to the owners, and they don’t bargain. They don’t moralize to their clients, either. Receiving a hut is never contingent on clients making any lifestyle changes, and Abdulrahman says getting people off the streets is not their explicit goal.
Twenty years ago, the Mad Housers got started when two Georgia Tech architecture students began studying the impromptu homeless shelters they saw around the city. They thought they could offer better, and formed a group that was much more prone than the current group to making political statements about homelessness with their shelters. “They were much more about making the problem of homelessness visible and not letting people sweep it under the carpet,” says Abdulrahman.
The group set up agit-prop huts near the Georgia Dome and the presidential library of Habitat for Humanity champion Jimmy Carter. This kind of visibility came at a price. “A lot of them got bulldozed,” says Abdulrahman. “You are messing with someone’s life when you tell them you can have this shelter, then a few weeks later the city is bulldozing you.” Now the group makes “low rider” huts, specifically designed to be less visible. “Our first commitment is to the stability of our client’s lives,” she says.
Typically, the creation of affordable housing is beset by bouts of introspective hand-wringing brought on by NIMBY complaints and Herculean funding gaps. There is sometimes more thought and theory than action and execution. The Mad Housers don’t have this problem. A few friends, a pickup, some insulation, some wood, a home.(Photos courtesy of the Mad Housers.)