Opinion by Richard Bleil
Maybe I’m jaded. I get that. Having read an article on “Conestoga huts” for the homeless, I had to repost it to my social media site. Named after Conestoga wagon used by settlers as they traveled west with their families, two “northern cities” have embraced these huts for the homeless and built “Conestoga Hut villages”.
Costing about $2,500, they are insulated, lockable and from the photos, look to be shorter than most people and not much wider than the front door. They can apparently hold a couple of beds, but nowhere in the photos or description that I’ve seen does it mention heat, showers, baths, or electricity.
The comments from my friends argue that they are “better than nothing”. I’m going to admit right now that maybe I’m wrong in my opinion. Maybe the hearts of the people behind these huts are in the right place. It does seem as though there are social services for these hut dwellers, so, maybe it is better than nothing, even though they are significantly smaller than a trailer home. But I’ve seen too much not to have my doubts.
In 1897, a journalist in East London described the living arrangements for the homeless, saying “Ranged in banks along the floor, narrow passages between each row, and in the gallery were three hundred men asleep or half asleep, a few talking. The banks are not unlike coffins and in the dim light the men in them looked like corpses arranged for identification after some great disaster.” These coffins cost a few pence a night, making them “affordable” for men who scrounged on the street. And, no doubt, they were “better than nothing.” But the people hosting these men made their money off of the misery and desperation of the population that were struggling to stay alive.
And that’s always the way, isn’t it? Somebody willing to turn a coin. During the gold rush, there was a lot of money to be made. Not by searching for gold, mind you. A few might have gotten lucky, but the true money was in selling equipment to those hoping to strike it rich. They would sell their belongings and life savings to buy equipment that ultimately rarely paid off. The medieval alchemists were the same. They would spend their moderate wealth on a futile effort for the secret of transmutation that could never be found, but the merchants selling them the equipment made plenty of gold.
The areas of the city where the Victorian homeless mentioned above were sheltered were the worst of the slums. With very few regulations or building codes, these building were cheap and dangerous. The one regulation that seemed to matter was that anybody could only own these buildings for up to seven years, so there was no desire to put the money in to build anything that would outlast this law. Looking at photos of the hut village, it looks like it’s waiting for a good windstorm to blow the entire village away. The claim is that the huts are weatherproof. They might be dry from rain in a moderately strong storm, but I doubt they would hold up to anything stronger than that, and they’re surely not built to last more than a few years. In fact, it looks to me like a cheap alternative to building a community building with cots in a strong building, showers, and maybe a food line. And for twenty-five hundred dollars, the people living there can find a way to pay for their own hut. What an outstanding deal. The city doesn’t even have to pay for it.
And what about the social services that are supporting the hut villages? Unfortunately, we are living in a society where social services are being cut dramatically so tax cuts for the wealthiest can remain intact. Meals on wheels, food for single mothers and school children, and insurance for everybody have been the victims of the budgetary knife by the heartless politicians who wield it. According to the article, there are services for the people living in these hut villages, but the question that follows is, even if this is true, for how long?
I hope I’m wrong. I really, truly pray that I’m just a cynical prick who is reading far too much into this. Unfortunately, I’ve worked for a city and sat in meetings where it became clear that the goal for homeless is to find a way to get them out of sight and out of mind. They even went after churches and social groups and pressured them to give up on feeding and housing these individuals on their own properties. Maybe I’m wrong, and this time the cities and contractors behind these villages truly have the best in their hearts.
God, I pray that I’m wrong.