Housing the homeless in shipping containers

by on October 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm in Economics | Permalink

I was sceptical at the outset, but quickly won over. The toilet and shower unit is exactly the same as my daughter had in her student accommodation and she much preferred it to having to share bathrooms and toilets with other students. Who wouldn’t?

What really excites me about this opportunity is that land that might otherwise lie idle for five years will be brought back into life and used to provide much-needed temporary accommodation for 36 men and women in Brighton and Hove.

…Before embarking on this venture, we spoke with our homeless clients about the concept. They loved it. In particular, they loved the fact residents would have their own kitchen, bathroom and front door. They felt that being self-contained is far more desirable than a room in a shared house even though the floor space, at 26 sq m, is roughly the same as they would have if they were sharing.

…When it was suggested that we house homeless people in steel shipping containers in a scrap metal yard, I thought it was either April Fool’s Day or we had lost all concept of decency.

There is more here.  For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

FC October 26, 2013 at 2:13 pm

“our homeless clients”

Translated from bureaucratese: Our siphons into the taxpayers’ wallets.

Rahul2 October 26, 2013 at 2:18 pm

This is, sadly, the magical and irrelevant thinking that dominates the debate on provision of housing in England. It’s beyond me as to why, with land available, permanent homes are not being built instead of these shipping containers.

Rahul October 26, 2013 at 2:24 pm

IMHO magical thinking is expecting that just because land is available permanent homes can / will / should be built.

Rahul2 October 27, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Rather high prices for small homes do seem to point to unfulfilled demand. Lots of vested interests don’t want the supply curve to move outward.

Rahul October 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Sorry, I think I misunderstood you. I assumed you were talking about this homeless context alone.

The Anti-Gnostic October 26, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Yours is the mindset which believes poverty is just a matter of lack of money, or that homelessness is caused by a shortage of homes.

Houses have to be maintained and kept in repair. They have to be serviced by utilities which must be paid. Most of these individuals are incapable of independent living at that level of complexity.

Brian October 26, 2013 at 4:51 pm

And yours is the Austrian school mindset which ignores that rentiers are parasites.

The Anti-Gnostic October 26, 2013 at 5:06 pm

LOL. I bet you use terms like “petit bourgeois” as well.

Brian October 26, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I don’t, since I’m not a leftist or a Marxist. Austrian school followers like yourself have more in common with Marxists, since both of you follow ideologies founded by parasites that seek to empower parasites, just in different sectors: public sector rent-seeking parasitism in Marxism, and private sector rent-seeking parasitism in Austrian school economics.

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 5:31 am

Brian,

An Austrian would distinguish carefully between “rentier” and “rent seeking”. An Austrian would point out that they favour dismantling barriers to entry and state subsidy to prevent rent seeking and any monopoly arising An Austrian would acknowledge that all monopolies will be rent-seeking. Some Austrians would explain private monopolies on efficiency (natural monopoly) or temporary advantage (innovation, patent) grounds. Some Austrians (you are right) would defend them on “just process” grounds.

A good Austrian would claim that there are/always have been (much) more state or quasi-corporatist monopolies than pure private monopolies (or even near-monopolies). Hence they would argue that a rational (though not exclusive) allocation of concern/effort should be against the state and corporatist rentiers rather than the private one.

Brett October 26, 2013 at 2:21 pm

It sounds like basically the same principle as pre-fabricated homes/trailers, except that you can stack them. It’s better than being homeless.

Rahul October 26, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Site offices for Engineering Firms have been built in containers for a long time I think. Ergo to build a home is slightly harder (plumbing, aesthetics etc.) but not a huge leap.

Jeff October 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Shipping containers were routinely used as housing in Iraq and Afghanistan by US military and nonmilitary personnel. It’s actually quite a good solution.

Asher October 26, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Small pre-fabs (we call them caravans) are very popular in Israel. But they are used as a stop-gap solution, both for homes and classrooms. When the gap is filled by building (which is time-consuming – especially in Israel), they can be easily moved to the next location. So they are “liquid” space. But I have seen studies showing that due to their shorter lifetime they are much ultimately much more expensive than constructed housing. If the containers are just sitting around then by all means use them for housing, but to scale this up would be wasteful.

Nigel October 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm
Asher October 26, 2013 at 4:57 pm

The link says they are cheap to construct which is true and makes them excellent as a portable, stop-gap solution. But the link doesn’t say anything about the shorter lifespan. I recall that the Israeli Ministry of Education did a study and found that the “caravans” last around five years – compared to buildings which last decades. That is what makes the “containers” less cost effective.

I imagine that the average homeless person results in much less wear and tear than a classroom full of children. But I am skeptical that this could still make portable housing a really cost-effective solution.

dead serious October 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

“Shipping containers: the temporary housing of choice for occupiers the world over.”

Rahul October 27, 2013 at 1:20 am

Shipping containers routinely travel hundreds of thousands of miles exposed to elements, sea water and all sorts of harsh environment. Plus the banging and scratching of trans-shipment. I’d be surprised if a bunch of kids cause them much structural damage.

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 6:18 am

Nigel,

Asher is concerned about $ per year of life; not $ per build, which should be out metric here. Fixed housing could easily last 100+ years, with a little maintenance.

Though to be fair a good study should take into account how these boxes can (repeatedly?) use temporarily unoccupied (“free”) land and be redeployable. That might be a big whole life saving over their fixed counterparts which have to pay for their land.

Corey Cole October 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm

While I don’t disagree with your assertion that fixed housing could last 100+ years, I’d say that:

a) There’s more than a little maintenance involved. 20-30 years is probably the best you can expect from things like roofing and siding. Interior fittings are likely less than that.
b) It would be very rough for most governments to sell to their constituents the up-front expense of building an appropriate structure: Concrete walls and standing-seam metal roofs aren’t cheap and, at least in the US, are better than what most taxpayers have on their own house.

Richard Harper October 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Homestead Acts: As a young child I lived on very rural homestead in Alaska. The fulfillment of the requirements and hence acquisition of the land deed eventually become the nest egg allowing my parents to move out of poverty. The lack of applicants and the lack of the completion of the necessary requirements (land clearing, cabin-building etcetera) around 1979 resulted in the absence of further homestead acts in Alaska. But I find myself wondering if a new set, properly structured, might help a few otherwise homeless families.

mike October 26, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Homeless families? I thought homeless were all single men.

Brenton October 27, 2013 at 1:16 am

There are over a million homeless children in the USA alone… (according to the The National Center on Family Homelessness)

Marie October 26, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I doubt there’s a place for this in helping the homeless, but there are other population segments this could fit very well. I never considered that homesteading was a way to create wealth for future generations. Very interesting.

Bryan Willman October 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm

I find the technology of the solution completely mainstream….

What baffles me is the general approach – why are these people homeless? Do they lack any marketable skills or any skills to make wealth from nature? Do they have mental or emotional or physical or substance abuse issues?

Wouldn’t it be better to convert the people into successful participants – which would mean they’re less likely to be homeless, eh?

Max Factor October 26, 2013 at 4:05 pm

First you have to provide safe housing and then you work on personal development, quitting addiction, etc. You can’t convert them into successful participants when they’re living in the streets.

Rahul October 27, 2013 at 1:23 am

Aren’t the underlying issues, if any, e.g. addiction, psychological etc. much better solved in institutional settings than by giving them an independent container-shelter and hoping they fend for themselves?

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 6:12 am

Thats an interesting take.

I’ve often wondered if it might be kinder / more cost-effective to institutionalise a least a part of the homeless problem, acknowledging that some of them will never leave such a setting. Maybe accomodation like this for “treated” persons in transition back to full participation or the (rare case of) “just unlucky” homeless who have no associated problems.

Spencer October 28, 2013 at 2:35 pm

We did this in the US until Reagan “transferred” the responsibility from the Feds to the state governments. But the states did not accept the transfer.

Before this homelessness was essentially non-existent in the US.

Max Factor October 27, 2013 at 11:32 am

Budget cuts have led to fewer mental health institutions.

I would imagine that the trailers are intended for the “down on their luck” homeless as opposed to the homeless suffering from mental illness and addiction issues.

somethingblue October 26, 2013 at 11:58 pm

Maybe we could take up a collection for Bryan to fly over and teach them to make wealth from nature. Should be pretty straightforward, eh?

Anonymous October 27, 2013 at 7:50 am

My 5 cents from personal experience:

I will lose my apartment soon because I refused every job offer I’ve had in 2 years. I don’t like interacting with people, and I don’t like work. I’m officially diagnosed as depressed, but the antidepressants have more side-effects than real effects and I have no intrinsic motivation for any form of cognitive or behavioral therapy. While the welfare system technically helps avoid homelessness for depressed people, this only works sustainably if you are compliant with therapy and the system itself, which I am not. Once I missed out on paying rent for two months, I had additional legal costs, which I couldn’t cover, which makes it harder and harder to maintain a real apartment.

I have zero interest in living with other people. So ordinary homeless shelters and institutionalization are unacceptable to me.

But give me free housing and food in a container, and I’ll think about it.

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 8:33 am

Thats an interesting and honest take. Thanks. It does put the challenge in perspective and makes me wonder whether a degree of coercion and institutionalisation is appropriate here.

I suppose with an acknowledged mental illness there is a case for sectioning and treating you regardless. I appreciate this is a violation of personal autonomy, but in the case of severe mental illness / narcotic dependency I would argue your capacity for reasonable judgement is compromised, and we’re entitled to act in what we perceive to be your own best interest.

If you were fully compus mentis of course, then I suppose I’m fine with either help on our terms, or letting you starve on the streets. I’d respect your choice.

Anonymous October 27, 2013 at 9:06 am

Despite my official mental health diagnosis, you can clearly see I’m articulate and indeed this should be sufficient grounds for respecting my autonomy. If society wants to detain people like me against our will, it should prove that we broke laws protecting the rights of others, not just make up a rationalization for what our own interests are supposed to be.

Note that I did not imply anyone owes me anything, including containers to live in. But neither do I owe the system compliance beyond recognizing the rights of others (i.e. non-aggression, which is actually more than you can say about literally all governments).

ladderff October 27, 2013 at 11:02 am

What do you like?

Rahul October 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm

So, let’s assume no one gave you a container to live in nor food. ( Since you do admit no one owes you anything )

What I’m interested in knowing is what’s your plan for survival then. Can you walk us through it with the same articulate reasoning? I am skeptical whether your proposed course of action won’t impact upon the rights of others.

Anonymous October 27, 2013 at 5:40 pm

“What I’m interested in knowing is what’s your plan for survival then. Can you walk us through it with the same articulate reasoning?”

None of your business, frankly. I described my situation only in response to Bryan Willman’s question why society can’t just convert homeless people into successful market participants. I’m sure lack of skills is often the answer, but lack of compliance is also a common answer.

Rahul October 28, 2013 at 12:32 am

@Anon

Respectfully, I disagree. I think you make it our business when you insinuate that society is disrespecting your autonomy or detaining you.

I dispute your assertion that it is possible for you to lead an innocuous life, not intruding or impacting upon the rights of others in spite of not being able to afford food & shelter, not wanting to work, & not being motivated to be helped out. I won’t say it is fundamentally impossible but rather rare.

Lack of compliance justifies more forceful measures when the alternatives end up adversely impacting the rights of others.

billb October 26, 2013 at 3:47 pm

In many cases there are no jobs for folks over fifty. Even when jobs exist, managers do not want older employees around who might show them up or even displace them. Lose your job over fifty and it is often a life sentence to homelessness.

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 6:09 am

Is that true across all professions?

As a technically skilled white collar, it seems to me that there are plenty of jobs for over 50′s in my domain. Could the problem be concentrated in manual/low skill industries and management?

Nigel October 26, 2013 at 3:54 pm

The Guardian article is somewhat uninformed.
This is not a new idea in the UK:
http://www.containercity.com/projects

dearieme October 26, 2013 at 4:01 pm

“having to share bathrooms and toilets with other students” is a vital part of the socialisation process at university.

Bill October 26, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Indeed. I would suggest that low cost student dormitories could also be modeled after these facilities.

All you would need would be wifi hookup so students could take online classes while living in containers.

I’ll have to propose this to the state legislature.

dead serious October 26, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I love it. The new college campus is a ring of stackable containers with a Google Loon hovering above it.

Thor October 27, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Absolutely. Sharing a res with 11 others in the UK, a few years ago, was a great exercise in economics and the “acquisition of maturity”. If you didn’t clean your own stuff, fine (depending).

But if you dirtied everyone else’s and didn’t clean, you were quickly brought up to speed.

Maturity was hard to achieve with some students, and this was at an elite institution.

Vincent October 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm

As a temporary fix it is commendable but there must be a transition point placed into the closest of parameters to facilitate self-reliance; to address any problematical addictions; to assure responsible community involvement; and to find longer term accommodations for those in need of such services. http://www.couragetolaugh.com

The Anti-Gnostic October 26, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Most of the homeless have irreversible brain damage from long-term drug and alcohol use. Giving them a house would be like me parking a Ferrari in your driveway and telling you I’d made the down payment.

Rahul October 27, 2013 at 1:27 am

I’d love a citation for the “irreversible brain damage” part.

dead serious October 27, 2013 at 8:13 am

No, it really wouldn’t be anything like that, but keep trying. Your metaphors are bound to improve.

C October 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Shipping container homes were a solution for homeless Haitians after the earthquake.

Tom T. October 26, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Were I homeless, I’d be paranoid that I’d be waking up one morning to find me and my temporary housing loaded onto a ship headed for Singapore.

Rahul October 27, 2013 at 1:26 am

There’s a dead market for shipping empty containers eastward.

Tom T. October 27, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Gah! That just means they’d shove my container overboard.

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 5:48 am

This scenario does have the makings of a beautiful Sci-Fi / Twilight Zone episode to it.

“You no homeless! You work ! Mr Cheng pay good money for you! You work like Chinese now!”

Kevin October 26, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Contractors, soldiers, and government civilians have lived in these, two to a container, in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan for years now. I spent over two years living in one. They are not bad, and very nice compared to the alternative. If I were homeless, I’d welcome this type of shelter.

Alistair October 27, 2013 at 5:46 am

It’s not a bad plan in so far as it goes. I’ve seen these in action – the military use these all the time, and other posters have noted how large firms use them as temporary accomodation. They are perfectly livable spaces; clean, dry, warm and lit (only read the Guardian comments thread – its amazing how prissy the commentators with their expectations of quality! If the Good Samaritan took these people to an inn, they’d complain it wasn’t the Hilton.)

But really, the problem of homelessness is seldom just the lack of a roof, and everyone working in the field knows this. The “problem” is often the nexus of drug and alcohol dependency, social dysfunction, lack of employability, petty criminality, or mental illness, that caused the homelessness in the first place. Shelter may be necessary, but its far from a complete or cost-effective solution.

If the homeless were only comprised of unlucky people with a few missed rent payments or a bad illness who found themselves on the street, the problem would have been solved already. So this innovation, though welcome, feels pretty marginal to the problem.

The Anti-Gnostic October 27, 2013 at 9:03 am

If the homeless were only comprised of unlucky people with a few missed rent payments or a bad illness who found themselves on the street, the problem would have been solved already. So this innovation, though welcome, feels pretty marginal to the problem.

You are too observant of this storybook vision of the homeless. The reality of the homeless is they are mostly broken people who can’t be fixed. If they were just folks down on their luck, it would simply be a matter of putting them up in the surplus space of wealthy liberals’ homes while they got back on their feet.

Now, to the extent homelessness really is a problem of a ‘lack of affordable housing,’ then one obvious solution would be to stop importing more people who compete for jobs and housing.

JonFraz October 27, 2013 at 2:27 pm

If you include mental illness under “bad illness” then, yes, that does account for a non-trivial fraction of the homeless.

Thor October 27, 2013 at 7:11 pm

“…read the Guardian comments thread – its amazing how prissy the commentators with their expectations of quality! If the Good Samaritan took these people to an inn, they’d complain it wasn’t the Hilton.”

Ah, indeed, the Guardian… sigh. Bastion of the malcontented and irritable.

Viktor Brech October 28, 2013 at 12:28 am

GMU should offer shipping containers to their Arlington-based graduate students. Demand would be considerable.

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