In City on the Verge, Mark Pendergrast writes about people without permanent homes in Chapter 6, “Mansions and Cat Holes.” As part of his research, he spent an afternoon with me visiting two homeless encampments where my organization, Mad Housers, has built temporary shelters for residents. You can read about that day in his book.

So why do we build these make-shift homes? To help, if we can, people who are facing a really difficult time in their lives, without judging them, perhaps to offer them a chance to make a change, when they are ready. It makes me think of a day during the summer after I graduated from high school, in 1999. I was passing out condoms at a Methodist prayer breakfast while Mona, a staunch activist and Person-in-Charge-of-the-Condom-Dufflebag, was cheerfully educating prostitutes about hepatitis.  “I’m not going to tell you to change your life,” she’d say, pressing the mint-flavored variety into a boy’s hand, “I just want to make sure you live long enough to *see* it change.”

My husband Nick and I have operated the same way with Mad Housers, engaging at the street level but more often in the off-road geography that homeless people habitate, in order to keep people alive.  Despite our lack of engineering experience (he’s a computer scientist, I’m a musician), we have built over one hundred Mad Houser shelters in Atlanta, each one a single room with a locking door and wood-burning stove.  For free.  For anybody who asked.

Since the advent of Tiny Houses we’ve seen an uptick in interest, and it was a rare treat to bring someone like Mark Pendergrast to meet our clients.  Newcomers to Atlanta are usually shocked at how many people populate the sidewalks downtown, while city natives know that the surrounding counties (or even states) zoned out all their emergency shelters in favor of sending their homeless to the capitol.

Since I began helping to provide temporary housing for the homeless in 1999, the Houser shelter has become an objet d’art of sorts, being displayed in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, the Triennale in Milan, the MODA gallery in Atlanta, and other well-heeled establishments. We were the subject of several dissertations, magazine interviews, and NPR announcements.  We have even had a sympathetic ear from City Hall.

Yet for practical reasons, we have stayed below the radar.  When your clients are in legal limbo, you must invariably put one foot outside the law in order to reach them, and that philosophy causes some hand-wringing.

But our philosophy is simple: stabilize, establish, connect.  Find a pre-existing homeless camp where huts can be built, establish a relationship of trust with the clients over time, and connect them with professionals who will transition them into permanent housing.

The first and last parts of this triptych are easy.  The middle part is complicated.  Like Mona with the condom, we can’t tell people to change.  We can only keep them alive until change becomes a possibility.

By Tracy Woodard, Mad Housers Board Member

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