Santa Rosa retiree takes action for homeless, building tiny huts
There are plenty of people in Sonoma County talking about solving the homeless problem.
Harold Wallin is one of those doing something about it.
For weeks, the 59-year-old artist, aided by a crew of volunteers, has been building small wooden shelters he hopes will keep homeless people safe and dry this winter. He doesn’t know who will use them, where they will be located, or any of the other logistical, political or regulatory issues that might be associated with building and giving away the tiny structures for homeless people.
He just knew that, seeing the scope of the homeless problem in Sonoma County, he had to do something.
“I said to myself, ‘Let’s just do something that makes so much sense that no one could say no to it,’” Wallin said recently from the field in southwest Santa Rosa where, in the shade of eucalyptus trees, he’s been assembling the mini-structures.
His reason for rallying in such a way? Perhaps it’s because he’s an artist, prone to dashing off a number of paintings when inspired and then figuring out how to sell them later. Or perhaps it’s because he’s from Anchorage, Alaska, where, in his experience, when something needs to get done, people just get together and do it.
Whatever the reason, Wallin, who designed power poles before retiring here with his wife four years ago, found himself building a hut in the garage of his Junior College neighborhood home this summer.
He envisioned a shelter just large enough for a homeless person to keep their stuff dry and sleep in. He wanted them to be simple enough - they cost about $600 each - that they could be assembled quickly and easily. He also thought they should be light enough that a person could move it if necessary. And he wanted them to be unobtrusive.
“I guess I wanted them to have the smallest footprint possible because I didn’t want to impose on the community,” Wallin said.
He shared his idea with advocates of the homeless in Santa Rosa, and was met with encouragement, donations, and volunteers willing to help.
Donations from the Sonoma County Homeless Task Force, Homeless Action and AmeriCorps have raised more than $6,000 for the project, enough to fund 10 huts, which are ?90 percent done. The First United Methodist Church let Wallin use a barn on its seven-acre Stony Point Road property to build them.
The church has plans of its own to establish a tent camp on a different part of the property, but the huts are not expected to be utilized for that project, church officials said.
Adrienne Lauby, with Homeless Action, says Wallin is tapping into the frustration people feel that more isn’t being done to address the local homeless problem. While local governments are doing more than they ever have, additional action is needed and people see that need daily.
“There is frustration, and people want to do something and they don’t want to wait through another cold, dark winter,” Lauby said. “So this is channeling that energy.”
She’s been talking to church and nonprofit groups, businesses and individual property owners about distributing the huts when they’re done in a couple weeks. But where they’ll go hasn’t been determined.
They could be part of an organized effort, like Santa Rosa’s Community Homeless Assistance Program, which makes it easier for groups with certain properties to serve the homeless, she said.
They could also go directly to a group of homeless people who “with a nod and a wink” have been given permission to remain on a piece of property for a period of time, she said. Or they could be donated to individuals who want to help, such as a property owner with a homeless family member, Lauby said.
The main goal is to get them finished and into the hands of people who will use them as safe spaces for people in need as quickly as possible, Lauby said.
Concerns about whether people object to the huts or whether regulations permit them are secondary to getting people the protection from the elements they need, Lauby said, noting that the political climate in the county is “not real punitive” when it comes to homelessness.
Wallin’s huts, which are slightly larger than his original prototype, are about 30 square feet and are made of two-by-threes and plywood. They have windows, roofs, and are just large enough for a 6-foot-tall person to stand up in and sleep in. Part of the sleeping platform pops out to access a few square feet worth of storage.
“I put myself in it,” Wallin said of the prototype, “and I thought ‘What would I need to feel good out there?’”
Wallin said he takes some of his inspiration from Gregory Kloehn, an Oakland builder and artist who makes shelters for the homeless.
Kloehn has made homes out of shipping containers, dumpsters and discarded items. Wallin’s original idea was to put wheels on them so if a person is rousted, they could just haul their little dwelling somewhere else. That idea has shifted somewhat, and while he still considers them mobile, he isn’t installing wheels.
It remains to be seen whether Wallin’s huts will catch on. An estimated 2,906 people in Sonoma County are homeless on a given night, according to the most recent point-in-time census conducted on a single night in January. The county estimates that housing them all would cost roughly $110 million.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors earlier this year identified a county-owned parking lot at its sprawling administration complex to house up to 12 small structures for two years, but no housing has been placed there yet.
Santa Rosa, which four months ago declared a homeless emergency, has also discussed the possibility of using city-owned property for an encampment, but the idea doesn’t seem to have gained much traction.
Wallin admits he may be naïve about the financial or political issues that could be keeping local governments from acting more swiftly. If his work helps people who need it while at the same time prodding public officials, that’s fine with him.
But he knows that his huts aren’t a long-term solution.
“This only speaks to a small part of the homeless population,” he said. “This is not a comprehensive answer. This is trying to help a few people out.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.? On Twitter @srcitybeat.