Can Cities Ease Homelessness With Storage Units?

San Diego is trying something different. San Diego is trying something different. Dancestrokes/Shutterstock.com

Back in the fall of 2009, some three-dozen San Diegans were taking in a Sunday church service when they lost everything. These people were homeless, so while they enjoyed food and worship inside the church, they parked their belongings outside. That's where agents from the city's Environmental Services Department rounded up these possessions—heirlooms, clothing, sleeping bags, medication—and then crushed them in the back of a garbage truck.

A class-action lawsuit followed, and as a result, the city agreed to provide funding for a better answer to the complaints that follow the homeless wherever they go. Borrowing a page from Los Angeles, San Diego launched its Transitional Storage Center, a secure facility where the homeless can store their possessions as they go about their days.

"For the people who use [the Transitional Storage Center] every day, that's one less stress for them to deal with it," says Heather Pollock, executive director of Girls Think Tank, the grassroots service organization that runs the center in San Diego. "They have enough stress to deal with in their lives."

The benefit of such programs to both cities and people experiencing homelessness can be immense. Transitional storage helps the homeless to focus on the things that can bring stability to their lives. It also alleviates some of the problems that lead residents and businesses to complain about the presence of homeless people in their communities. Other cities, namely on the West Coast, are seeing success with initiatives similar to the one adopted by San Diego. More should follow their lead. 

"When you’re literally homeless, you’re like a turtle that carries everything on his or her back," says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Which can be problematic if you're walking long distances or trying to work. There's always the danger of things being lost, stolen, or thrown away by police officers."

San Diego's Transitional Storage Center provides more than 350 bins for homeless residents to stash their things. Each bin holds up to 96 gallons. People assigned a bin can check into their possessions during morning and evening windows—before and after work. Two full-time employees mind the facility; presently, there are more than 120 names on the waiting list for a bin. 

"It’s a win-win for everyone in the downtown area," Pollock says. "Back when we had 200-something bins, we were storing 30,000 pounds of belongings."

Vancouver agreed to launch a like-minded storage program as a concession to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The Cart and Belongings Storage Facility, which received its first full year of funding from the city when it opened in 2009, is now run by First United Church, where it is located. The church, which also operates a 60-bed homeless shelter, converted part of its underground parking into a center where homeless residents can check in shopping carts, store luggage, or make use of large Rubbermaid containers that can hold up to 50 pounds of stuff each.  

For the homeless, simply being able to store belongings can be transformative. Storage bins or storage units allow them to safeguard important documents, especially identification and other paperwork that can be hard or expensive to replace, as well as sentimental items and keepsakes, which can't be replaced at all. At the First United Church facility, users tend to check in sleeping equipment during the morning—things like blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows—and check them out again at night. This frees people to pursue medical check-ups, job interviews, and housing appointments during the day: normal activities that are off limits for anyone who has to protect his or her things around the clock. 

"If you carry around your belongings every day, there are just so many things that are not available," says Heather Forbes, communications and resource development coordinator for First United Church. "You can’t go into a grocery store, you can’t go into a publish washroom, you can’t go into a job interview. Can you imagine, if you brought all your belongings to a job interview? Things open up for you that wouldn’t be possible."

People who use a bin at First United Church have to check in every day, whether they drop by in person or not. The center is manned all the time, mostly by people hired from the neighborhood who may be facing broader barriers to employment, Forbes says. When people check in, staffers retrieve their bins for them; and while users are afforded some privacy to access their belongings, staffers have enough oversight to enforce rules about not storing food, for example.

Checking in with someone on a regular basis brings a certain regiment to people's lives, and staff are sometimes able to refer people to other services provided by the church or elsewhere. Some of those who use bins in the Vancouver storage facility keep them for years, Forbes says, while others depend on them for a short-term transition period often lasting from a few weeks to two months. "A fair number of people who are using the storage facility will hold onto the storage unit when they get housing, because they know they might not keep their housing for that long," Forbes says. 

The benefits of transitional storage are obvious for the homeless, but they redound to cities as well. Both the Vancouver and San Diego storage facilities are located downtown, in places where there is already a large homeless population—so they aren't necessarily attracting more homeless residents to an area where businesses would grumble. Forbes says that storage lets homeless people make better use of washrooms more often, improving personal hygiene for users and eliminating public waste. Piles of belongings wind up in bins instead of under overhangs or tarps. Far from putting the problem of homelessness out of sight and out of mind, transitional storage helps to make the homeless more productive b giving them greater control over their lives.

Pollock says that her organization is looking at a deal with the Downtown San Diego Partnership whereby the city would move the possessions that it finds abandoned by the homeless to the storage center. That would make for a central lost-and-found for a population that tends to move in and out of shelters, transitional housing, medical centers, and the justice system.  

"Having a storage space can help someone get out of homelessness," Stoops explains. "A lot of shelters will have no storage space whatsoever. You sleep on top of your stuff, you put it under the cot, you have to take it with you the next day."

There are reasons why the Vancouver and San Diego programs, as well as Los Angeles's Central City East Association Check-in Center, rely on large storage bins, as opposed to traditional storage units. It's easy and cheap to convert a parking lot into a storage facility using bins, as both the Vancouver and San Diego programs have done. Cities might also consider subsidizing units in traditional storage-unit facilities, although advocates caution that manning a transitional storage facility with personnel is key.

"If people have access to storage units at all hours of day and night, then you need video surveillance or security personnel" on site, according to Stoops. "You can’t be doing drugs, alcohol, prostitution [in a storage-unit building]. You need to think of all those things. You need to be clear about what items are allowed to be stored."

Pest control is one cost built into running a transitional storage facility. Personnel is the biggest cost. Operating costs for the San Diego program costs between $80,000 to $100,000 per year. Naturally, funding for these programs is insecure. There is no federal funding stream for such programs.

In Vancouver, where the program got its start from the Olympics, First United Church has turned to indiegogo for its operations and otherwise depends on donors. In San Diego, where a lawsuit sparked the program, the Transitional Storage Center has struggled to find a permanent site, having moved twice; it now occupies a parking lot owned by the San Diego Housing Commission. Pollock says that her organization would like to convert old shipping containers into lockers that work like bins.

The benefits that transitional storage offers cities may well outweigh the costs. Since First United Church is located a couple blocks from a court, for example, the church is able to store belongings for people scheduled to appear in court—often for minor infractions. It's less expensive for everyone involved when courts aren't forced to issue or serve a warrant after a homeless person misses a court date because he or she couldn't afford to leave her belongings unattended. That's just one aspect of normal life that's interrupted by homelessness—and the costs that pile up for cities.

Transitional storage isn't a solution for homelessness, per se. But it can alleviate the suffering and distress that the homeless feel and, in some cases, help people to avoid long-term homelessness altogether. Back in 2007, for example, Washington, D.C., passed a progressive law known as the Evictions With Dignity Act. This amendment requires landlords to work closely with the city when evicting a tenant. Instead of dumping a tenant's belongings onto the street—where individuals and families must find some way to protect them, or else lose them—the city is supposed to pay for a tenant's stuff to be moved to a storage unit for 90 days.

Unfortunately, the D.C. government never funded the program. It's unfortunate, because that difference could mean everything—the difference between chronic poverty and homelessness. Consider the eviction scene that Ta-Nehisi Coates witnessed about a year back in Chicago: a family uprooted, their lives put out to the curb. What if Cook County had moved their things out instead? Within a couple months' time, with luck and a working safety net, maybe that household lands back on its feet.

Maybe it worked out for that Chicago family. But for people who suddenly find that their belongings belong to the street, priority number one is making sure those things are not lost or stolen—and that's a full-time job. 

"For people who have been evicted form their dwelling for not paying the rent, storage helps them hold on to the only remnants of their once-stable lifetime," Stoop says. "Losing your apartment or home is bad enough. But losing your stuff is even worse."

(Image via Dancestrokes/Shutterstock.com)

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