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A startup could profit off homelessness with tiny homes


Tiny houses have become popular as a type of homeless shelter in cities around the country. But they're expensive and not a long-term solution. From member station KCRW in Los Angeles, Anna Scott reports on one manufacturer trying to get people off the streets while also turning a profit.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: When Steve Mason lost his housing a few years ago, it didn't sink in right away.

STEVE MASON: You don't feel it until you hear it - when people go, hey; you look like you're homeless, you know?

SCOTT: Mason is one of more than 40,000 people unhoused in the city of LA.

MASON: But the bottom line is, if you have to turn that corner with that cart and figure out where you're going to sleep, it's real.

SCOTT: There aren't nearly enough shelter beds for everyone living on the streets of LA. But about a month ago, Mason moved into a brand-new tiny home village.

KEN CRAFT: This was the fifth one to open. And then what we're standing on right here, this is a dead end road that just went right here to the end. It was a dead end, and so we were able to...

SCOTT: Ken Craft is the CEO of Hope of the Valley, a nonprofit hired by the city to run this makeshift campus in North Hollywood. Looking around, you see rows of 8-by-8 temporary living structures, some larger trailers with restroom stalls and social service offices, and outdoor picnic tables for meals.

CRAFT: This is a long overdue emergency response to a humanitarian crisis. And the good news is, is it works.

SCOTT: Over the past two years, villages like this one have popped up not only in LA, but on at least 82 sites around the country.

AMY KING: From 2019 to 2020, we had 7,000% growth in demand.

SCOTT: Amy King is the founder and CEO of Pallet, a startup in Washington state that's cornered the market on manufacturing these structures. The city of LA has so far spent about $48 million to set up 10 villages of Pallet shelters. It looks like a good investment. Pallet recently raised $15 million from a half-dozen individuals in funds. King acknowledges that some might see this as profiting off the homelessness crisis but says her company employs formerly unhoused people, and...

KING: I will be very happy to celebrate the day that we shut the doors of this shop because our product is no longer needed.

SCOTT: Critics see the whole trend as part of a troubling swing towards managing homelessness rather than solving it, but King says there's no one-step-solution.

KING: So we wanted to create something that would sort of fill the gap for people so that the streets didn't become a waiting room while people waited for housing to be built.

PETE WHITE: We refuse to refer to a tool shed as a tiny home.

SCOTT: Pete White is the executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an unhoused advocacy organization.

WHITE: We find ourselves now in a place where there has been a backpedaling away from anything akin to permanent housing and moving forward quickly towards shelters.

SCOTT: And that, White says, takes away from the harder work of creating a more equitable city.

WHITE: The only thing that solves this crisis is housing.

SCOTT: While that might be true, LA's affordable housing supply falls so short of the need, the city is starting to require unhoused people to double up in Pallet shelters. In North Hollywood, Steve Mason says he's ready to move someplace permanent.

MASON: I've been homeless for a long time, and it's my time to trade one of these gorgeous tiny homes to someone else less fortunate than me.

SCOTT: Mason's only been in his tiny home for a month, though, and a typical stay in any shelter in LA can last up to a year. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF JHENE AIKO SONG, "B.S.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott