• Elvis Summers builds tiny homes for LA's homeless population. (SBS Dateline)
One of Dateline’s most popular stories of 2017 explores a crisis next door to Hollywood’s rich and famous – tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children. One man is fighting to help with his unique solution but authorities want to shut him down.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018 - 21:30

Originally broadcast June 27, 2017

Los Angeles is one of the richest cities in the richest country in the world.

But underneath its sprawling highways, in the shadows of the bright lights of Hollywood, a large homeless community is struggling to survive, and given little support by local government.

“It's a struggle,” says Raven, who has lived on and off the streets for most of her life, after running away from an abusive home life at age 9 and being homeless by 13. “It's been a struggle, but I'm hanging in there.”

She is currently sleeping under a tarpaulin next to a freeway, like many homeless people in the city. She says life is stressful, and made harder by authorities.

“The city always kicks us out from where we’re staying, they tell us to clean up and move.”

While hope is difficult to come by, one man is trying to put a roof over the heads of people like Raven and give them a new life.

For several years Elvis Summers has been building ‘tiny homes’ – essentially single-room, portable cabins – and providing them to homeless people. His work is part of a broader tiny homes movement that has been adopted by NGOs and charities in other cities and countries, as a cheap way of providing short-term shelter to people living on the streets. Elvis has brought the idea to LA through his own enterprise and a successful crowd funding campaign.

At present, many of Elvis’ homes are sitting unused on a lot, after they were banned by the city’s bureaucracy, with one councillor calling them “nuisances” and “a threat in many ways to our public safety”. Concerns have been raised about the homes’ lack of running water, sewerage connections or reflective markings to make them visible to drivers.

But for people faced with waitlists for often overcrowded emergency to a shelter and little government housing assistance, is there a better alternative?

For decades Los Angeles has reflected a cross-section of society in stark relief; the fame and wealth of Hollywood sitting alongside the desperation and hopelessness of Skid Row – a district of the city known for the thousands of homeless people who live there.

The city has made pledges to fix the issue. After homelessness rates soared in the early-2000s, a US$12 billion 10-year strategy called ‘Bring LA Home!’ was floated, but it went nowhere.

Last year efforts intensified with the city announcing a new multi-billion dollar homeless program incorporating two combined initiatives which aim to create or subsidise 15,000 housing units over ten years and pay for services to support those living in them.

But LA County’s homeless population continues to soar, outpacing the city’s efforts – with the latest annual count showing it has jumped by 23% over the last year to nearly 58,000 people.

“The simple fact in LA is there's just not enough shelters, there are not enough beds,” says Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission shelter in the middle of Skid Row.

“[There are more than] 47,000 people experiencing homelessness and there are about 12,000 shelter beds or transitional housing beds. Even if people on the streets right now decided to come in, there's nowhere to come in, there's no place to go.”

While the scale of the problem continues, and government action stagnates, Elvis is doing his best to make life for LA’s homeless slightly less uncomfortable.

“The tiny house idea is very simple. It’s shelter. Food, water and shelter are not optional, they’re required for human survival,” says Elvis.

“It’s a temporary solution and like the first stone in a foundation.”

“When you have nothing and nowhere to go, having something like this may as well be a castle.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


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Reporter: Dean Cornish

Producer: Calliste Weitenberg

Editor: Simon Phegan