Aspen Times Weekly: Hit & Run with John Colson |

Aspen Times Weekly: Hit & Run with John Colson

with John Colson

This is to celebrate a “why didn’t we think of that a long time ago” moment in public policy.

The New York Times on Feb. 19 ran a story about “micro-houses” popping up here and there around the U.S. as an answer to the growing problem of homelessness in America.

The NYT story focused primarily on a project known as Quixote Village, named after something called Camp Quixote, a floating tent city of homeless denizens of the city of Olympia, Washington. The occupants of the 144-square-foot domiciles and former residents of that tent city, which reportedly had moved more than 20 times in six years or so at the urging of city officials.

The project is the work of a non-profit board called Panza, and it cost a little over $3 million to build about a dozen tiny homes on roughly two acres of land in an industrial park in Olympia.

The story also referred to a micro-housing project in Madison, Wisconsin, the town where I grew up. An offshoot of the Occupy Madison movement, known as OM Build, is busy cobbling together tiny log houses on wheels for the homeless, which can theoretically be hauled from one site to another if necessary. But OM Build also is working on buying a permanent site for the cabins, using the increasingly popular “crowdfunding” method to raise money on the Internet.

The houses in Quixote Village, offering about the same space as a Chevy Suburban, cost roughly $19,000 to build and equip. The log cabins on wheels in Madison, cost about $5,000 apiece, according to news reports.

The houses in both cases feature toilets, beds, kitchen facilities and, best of all, a degree of privacy and dignity for the occupants that never was available on the streets or in traditional shelters.

Other cities and other groups are looking at similar projects, which could provide a little breathing room for governmental types looking for solutions to the homelessness crisis in this country — solutions that don’t involve revolution in the streets and the unmaking of a socio-economic system that has led us to this awful spot.

There are inherent problems in this kind of solution, of course, the first being that such projects are Band-Aids at best, given the scope of things.

In 2012, federal bureaucrats estimated there were more than 633,000 homeless people in the U.S., as counted in a spot-check survey. But another federal survey, conducted in 2000, estimated that there were as many as 3.5 million homeless people in this country, when the number is factored to include temporary homelessness, and the numbers of people who drift in and out of homelessness on a regular basis.

There’s no way we’re ever going to build that many micro-housing units nationwide.

And why should we ask an unpalatable number of our citizens? This is America, after all, and these people need to get up out of their wheelchairs and their tent cities and get a job, dammit! If they like living on the streets and begging for food, that’s their problem, right?

Such arguments are so pathetically wrong headed I won’t waste the space it would take to reply.

Because the fact is that we do need to address this issue in a nationwide, sustainable way, and these micro-housing projects are a start that may lead to broader ideas, better ideas.

I’m not sure about this, but I believe we are still the richest nation on earth. It’s unacceptable to have all these homeless people in our midst, just as it’s unacceptable to have little kids starving in our cities and our rural communities, while at the same time we have enclaves of ridiculous wealth and privilege and an ever-increasing allotment of millionaires and billionaires.

We’ve got the money, we’ve got enough smart people that we should be able to solve this — unless, of course, all the money is being spent on extra homes and other toys, and all the smart people are just standing around looking embarrassed and dumb whenever this question pops up.

Oh, wait. Did I just describe America?

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