Mad Housers

Originally published in Heartland Journal, Winter, 1993

 

The Mad Housers started in Atlanta in 1987, as a group of architecture students and like-minded folks concerned about the visible presence of homeless people in their locale. (They continue today, building with homeless people in Atlanta.)

 

In 1991, Chicago’s Randolph Street Gallery hosted Counter-Proposals: Adaptive Approaches to the Built Environment, which brought the original Mad Housers from Atlanta to Chicago, to introduce their brand of constructive change to the show and to Chicago homeless people. As a group formed to continue this work of “hut building” beyond the exhibit, people like Tor Faegre was actively involved. Like many participants, he brought a history of activism as well as building skills to this work.

In Chicago, the Mad Housers group continued for a few years, despite the climate challenges and political situations which made Chicago a less-than-supportive place for Mad Houser actions. I was involved in the group as a carpenter/sculptor/activist and worked on pre-fabrication of hut walls, transport, and on-site-construction. While the Chicago Mad Houser group included the sweat-equity work requirement for recipients of a hut, our growing pains as a group included the realization that linking social services to homeless housing would provide more stable situations for homeless people’s shelter success. After a demonstration hut was assembled in Daley Plaza, within view from the mayor’s office, and the subsequent New York Times article, on homelessness in Chicago, concerns about publicity and public debate versus covert direct action strained the Chicago Mad Housers’ collective mission.

This reprint of Tor Faegre’s report from the Heartland Journal recalls the Chicago reality of homelessness at a time before Millennium Park, when many homeless people lived in cardboard boxes on Lower Wacker Drive. Tor died this past Fall, and his obituary in The Evanston Review ended this way: “In honor of Tor, contributions can be made to: St. Francis Catholic Worker (4652 N. Kenmore, Chicago 60647) and Voices for Creative Non Violence, Chicago, SOA Watch (www.soaw.org). Please give blood when you can.”

More info at www.madhousers.org and Talmadge Wright’s Out of place: homeless mobilizations, subcities, and contested landscapes (SUNY Press, 1997). – Jayne Hileman, 2010

The following is a reprint from the Heartland Journal, publishing on and off since 1979, with a new issue on its way this fall. Some back issues are available at www.heartlandjournal.org, and others are available for viewing and purchase at The Heartland Journal Archives (7000 N. Glenwood). For more information, please contact Michael James (michael@heartlandcafe.com).

 

The homeless are everywhere, and because there are so many, they often gather together to create communities. These “shantytowns,” as they are often called, are beginning to appear in many major cities. They are usually hidden from view, but for those who look carefully they are there – in vacant lots, in old factory areas, along river edges, by railroad tracks and under viaducts. Chicago’s Lower Wacker Drive has hosted enough makeshift dwellings to qualify as a sort of homeless condominium.

The ingenuity of some of the shelters constructed is the envy of many an aspiring post-modern architect. In Manhattan, one homeless village became famous for a tipi constructed out of U.S. Government mailbags that stood at its center. Nearby, a Chinese man built a stick and string house, covered it with cardboard and painted on bold Chinese ideograms. But even for most people, the difficulty of constructing even a modest shelter without decent tools or materials is impossible. This is where the Mad Housers step in.

The Mad Housers build small homes for the homeless and give them away. They are a group of volunteers that provide a simple and direct way of helping a homeless person with what they most need: shelter. The homes are small (48 square feet), have no electricity or running water and are not “up to code.” The builders ignore regulations such as building codes precisely because these rules make it impossible to build minimal low-cost housing. These homes are not meant to be a permanent solution to the problems of the homeless, but they do provide protection from the elements, warmth, and privacy. They are located in out-of-the-way places in the hope that the occupant will be left at peace.

Mad Housers began in Atlanta in 1986 when a couple of Georgia Tech students asked a group of homeless living in makeshift huts of discarded scrap what they would need for a better shelter. The requirements, they were told, were simple: a shelter that didn’t leak, that had room to stand up in, a place to sleep, and a window for light. The students resolved to build such a dwelling and give it to one of the homeless they had met. Within a year they had built 22 of the huts and placed them in places chosen by their clients.

In the fall of 1991 two of Atlanta’s Mad Housers participated in a symposium at the Randolph Street Gallery on the “Built Environment.” As their contribution to the show they gathered a group of volunteers to build a hut. The hut was constructed in sections in the gallery and then assembled on a strip of wasteland along the Metra commuter tracks. A homeless man who had lived in an abandoned warehouse nearby became the hut’s first resident. The volunteers resolved then and there to start a Chicago chapter of the Mad Housers.

In the following months, these volunteers began an ambitious program of hut production. They set up committees to solicit donated materials, collect money, and search out potential clients. A donated warehouse located near the gallery was used to build the hut components. A billboard company donated sign board and a lumber yard offered used 2x4s. All sorts of helping hands showed up – carpenters and accountants worked alongside architects and waitresses.

The hut components – the floor, four walls, a sleeping loft, and roof – were assembled in the morning and then trucked to the site in the afternoon and hammered into place. Volunteers eventually could construct a hut in four hours and assemble it in one hour. The thrill of putting up a house in less than a day was contagious. By late spring 18 huts were spread along railroad tracks, creating a new village in the heart of the city. The residents dubbed it “Tranquility City.”

Soon the proud owners transformed their huts from raw space into homes. People painted the walls, put up shelving, and laid in canned goods. They cleaned up the yard and made plans to plant a garden in the spring. As word spread, the residents were given encouragement – railroad employees tossed bags of food and clothing from passing trains, and church groups dropped by to offer help. The media, sensing a good story, started to tell the tale of Tranquility City.

The new hut village and the circumstances of the residents became daily newspaper, radio, and television fare. At first, Mad Houser volunteers and residents alike were leery, since the huts were not strictly legal. But the exposure seemed beneficial as more people called with offers of help and materials. One resident, Dwayne Snyder, whose photo appeared in the Chicago Tribune, was offered his old job back when his boss saw his picture. When Mayor Daley was asked about the huts he seemed to give tacit approval. The railroad, which owned the land, said it had no objections.

But as media coverage grew, the city fathers became alarmed. The image of a third world city sprouting up within sight of sleek Loop office towers was just too much to contemplate. The mayor’s office announced that the huts would have to go. Inspectors showed up and summarily declared the huts unsafe. For a while, it was hoped the concentrated media coverage might provide protection for the huts. Surely, volunteers reasoned, dramatic images of hut residents standing with folded arms before oncoming bulldozers would keep the city at bay. “They’ll have to drag me out before I’ll leave,” said one resident. A phone tree was set up so that volunteers could rush to the site at any hour and protect the huts and the residents.

But it was never necessary to block any bulldozers. City officials instead met with Tranquility City residents, both singly and together, and offered them an alternative. The city promised each client a public housing apartment if they would agree to vacate the huts. One by one the residents took the city’s offer. Some turned down apartments the city first offered (the worst of the public housing projects) but eventually agreed when the city came up with a better deal. Before long a flatbed truck drove up to the site, accompanied by a crane, and each of the huts was lifted up and carried away.

The city said the huts could not be permitted because they didn’t comply with building codes and were unsafe. Of course, neither were the cardboard boxes and abandoned buildings previously occupied by so many of the homeless. The city argued that it provided shelters for the homeless. But shelters are regarded as a poor solution at best. Many homeless find living on the streets preferable to the strict regimen of shelters. One hut resident, Calvin Gatewood, said he had tried working and living in a shelter but found that his work schedule conflicted with the shelter’s hours. All the hut residents I spoke with found the huts a better solution than the shelters.

Atlanta currently hosts more than 100 huts. Mayor Andrew Young (once a civil rights activist himself) said of the huts, “This is the kind of civil disobedience I can tolerate.” Some of the huts have had to be moved to new locations, but no city (there are also huts in New York, Cincinnati, and St. Louis) has ever ordered the type of wholesale removal that occurred in Chicago.

Mad Housers’ simple solution to the problem of homelessness ran afoul of the city’s fear of allowing anyone to openly break the rules. A makeshift shelter under a viaduct also breaks the rules but is less threatening because of its impermanence. The huts became a threat because of their success – they looked too permanent, too proud.

With the huts gone, Chicago’s Mad Housers decided they had no choice but to build more huts. The city’s gesture of providing housing for 18 homeless men was no solution for the thousands of homeless still on the street. This time Mad Housers made sure the huts were put in inconspicuous places and the locations kept secret.

What could not be hauled away on a flat bed truck was the shared hut building experience felt by volunteers and residents alike. For many, it was the first time they had participated in building a home like this. It had all the elements of an old-time barn raising. Building skills developed and the hut design was improved. Friendships developed and bonds were formed between volunteers and clients.

Mad Housers arose as a direct response to a need, and that need still exists. The Mad Housers’ slogan promises to build “until there is a better way.” In this election year, Mad Housers will continue to vote with their hammers and saws.