The Mad Housers was founded in 1987 by several Georgia Tech architecture grad students who realized that homelessness was becoming a problem in the Atlanta area, and that with simple, inexpensive materials they could design and build warmer, safer shelters than what the homeless could do on their own. The first Housers combined service with protest, but today’s group, headed by president Nick Hess, who joined in 1994, concentrates on being “first responders” for Atlanta’s homeless, installing heated huts with car-engine generators, on what is often other people’s property. As a result of population dislocations caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Mad Housers are gearing up for a new challenge: a potential influx from the gulf coast to georgia because of failures In government resettlement and recovery efforts.
How many huts have Housers built and for how many homeless camps since 1994? I’d say that I’ve built over 70 hut-shelters for about a dozen camps total. Right now we have around forty shelters extant at 5 camps and a couple of individual spots around the Atlanta area. The camps are generally in areas that are private but close to clean water, public transportation, grocery stores, and other necessities.
Why build shelters instead of demanding reforms from the government? The group, when I joined, was way too small to be snotty to the powers-that-be. We decided that, while it may be fun to poke a finger in the eye of the Man, it didn’t benefit anyone, least of all our clients. They have no interest in being political symbols, they’re just guys living outside.
Why not fund a halfway house or something more permanent? The shelters, the programs, they’re good, but the homeless have to go to them. Often they can’t, won’t, or are afraid to—they’re just not ready or able to enter the programs. Halfway houses are better than our shelters but take more time to implement. We’re the first-responders—it’s like asking EMTs why they don’t do oncology.
Don’t the shelters just “enable” homelessness? You can’t ask a person with absolutely no power to take responsibility for his life. If you have to worry about a place to sleep tonight, you can’t be expected to plan out tomorrow or the next week. The Mad Housers are antiauthoritarian in that we work to directly empower the homeless instead of creating our own power structure and telling the homeless to cleave to it.
You build shelters on other people’s property. Are the Housers anti-property? We love private property. Everybody should have some. We try not to tick property owners off. It doesn’t help our clients if their shelter gets torn down after one week. So we try to look for established camps, where they’re known by the community around them and aren’t bothering or being bothered by anyone.
Do you ask permission or forgiveness? We try to find the deeds of the land that hold campers before we start, but we generally don’t contact the landowners because they’d almost certainly say, “No,” regardless of any sympathy for the homeless. We only investigate the deed to see if the camp is likely to be busted. If it’s on railroad land, we generally won’t go. The railroads have been dealing with the homeless for a century and have very fixed ideas on the camps.
FEMA rejected Georgia’s request for additional funds for housing Katrina refugees. Have you seen a spike yet? Not yet, but we’re expecting that to change once more folks start running out of money. Most of the existing camps are already at what we consider to be safe capacity; if we get a big surge, then we may have to pioneer a couple of new camps, which is a risky business.
Katrina also showed how many people government assistance leaves behind, in disasters, and in the “slow” disaster of homelessness. Is your model generalizable?
Yes, absolutely. When the Housers first started up in the late 80s/early 90s, a lot of Mad Houser chapters sprung up around the country, but they’re all gone, as far as we know. There was a group a couple of years back in Ontario as well, but I don’t know if they’re still around.
We have our blueprints available online. You need only the most rudimentary carpentry skills to put together a shelter, and it only takes around 40 man-hours. However, it’ll take a fundamental attitude change about homelessness. Whether you believe that the homeless deserve their fate or not, we’ve got to come to the realization that having folks out on the street is bad for everyone. It doesn’t matter if someone is “worthy”: desperate people with little to hope for aren’t good for society as a whole.