One advocate says small shelters are a needed stopgap
Jeeni Criscenzo moved to San Diego after the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush, having spent the previous year writing a daily blog called CPR4Democracy. In 2009, she noticed a homeless woman putting cardboard down on the street at night for her son. It motivated her to create Amikas, a 501(c) (3) organization dedicated to finding safe places for women and their children to sleep. Criscenzo was one of the founders of Women Occupy San Diego and remains active in supporting many liberal causes. In 2006 she was the Democratic candidate for the 49th Congressional District, running against Rep. Darrell Issa.
CityBeat: You’re a leading proponent for the “tiny houses” program for San Diego homeless. Where did the idea come from?
Jeeni Criscenzo: Every program to end homelessness in our area runs into a brick wall—we have no affordable housing. We are seeing the consequences of years of pandering to developers who don’t want to build affordable housing, and politicians who think, “If you don’t build it, the poor won’t come here.”
So we do all of these surveys and counts, gather all of this data, and get people’s hopes up that they are finally going to get housing. But little happens because there simply is no place for these people to go. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is more than 10 years! That means that the little boy I saw back in 2009 is probably going to have to wait another three years before he and his mom are going to get in an apartment.
So we need someplace for people to live in the meantime. That’s the key word “meantime.” By no stretch of the imagination are these shelters suitable housing.
But they are a hell of a lot better than a tarp stretched over two shopping carts!
CB: Who benefits from tiny houses?
JC: Let’s get the most vulnerable off the streets—women and children, families, the elderly. They are sitting ducks when they don’t have a door to lock at night. And that constant state of hyper-vigilance that they must always be in in order to survive, that results in trauma. That’s something we can prevent when we give these folks a door that locks so they can let their guard down and sleep. They can stop worrying that they’re going to get caught up into human trafficking, or get beat up or raped. In the morning, they can lock up their stuff and go about their business without carting everything they own around with them. And they know they have a place to go at night so they are not spending the whole day scouting around for where they will be safe that night. It’s not ideal, but if we can’t give people the ideal, that doesn’t excuse us from giving them at least the bare essentials.