Built by Santa Cruz/San Jose-based non profit Simply Shelter, “tiny shelters” serve as a refuge for unhoused individuals.
They’re just big enough for a person to sleep in and store a few belongings. A vent on the ceiling provides airflow and a triangle-shaped aperture on the side brings in some sunlight. They look like storage lockers on wheels.
“It gets you out of the weather, gets you some privacy. You don't have to carry your bedding around. It's very helpful,” says Marvin Griffith.
Griffith slept in a tiny shelter until recently. He stayed in it for about three months before moving on to transitional housing with the help of a Santa Cruz county program.
He first noticed the shelters when an unhoused acquaintance of his acquired one. That led him to connect with Alekz Londos, who started a tiny home project in Santa Cruz that would eventually morph into Simply Shelter and expand to San Jose.
“Alex had this idea of bicycle locker-sized enclosures,” says San Jose resident and NASA aerospace engineer, Jay Samson. Samson was looking for a meaningful project to get involved with when he discovered Londos’ project.
At the outset of the pandemic, Samson was taking a leadership course that required him to put a team together and complete a project. While some groups tackled simple tasks like organizing a closet, Samson immediately thought of Londos’ tiny shelter project.
“I remembered [the tiny home project] when I was in the class and I said, ‘Damn, I can make hundreds of those,” he says. “I could bring people together and just really transform homelessness.” - Josué Monroy
Londos took him up on the offer to help and Samson began to expand the operation into what is now Simply Shelter. Samson began holding build days at his home with dozens of volunteers showing up to work on the shelters.
“The amount of support that we get is tremendous. I mean, so many people are signing up and wanting to get involved in some capacity,” Samson says. “So, it's really inspiring.”
Samson is now in the process of registering Simply Shelter as a nonprofit organization, which would give it access to grants and the ability to hire employees. At the moment, the project is primarily funded by Samson.
To date, the team has built 12 shelters after Londos’ initial two that he built himself. The demand for these shelters is high and the project is partnering with the Santa Cruz and San Jose Downtown Streets Teams to help reach potential candidates.
A “community steward” program was also launched to vet potential candidates, check in with shelter residents and address any issues. Samson says that they are not opening up an official waitlist until they have more units built in order not to give “a false sense of hope” to people interested in them.
When speaking with potential shelter occupants, the community stewards will run through a list of qualifying questions. If claustrophobia is an issue, the shelters might not be a good fit, Londos says. Shelter occupants are also expected to follow certain guidelines, including a no hoarding policy. Occupants must also use the shelter for sleeping, not just as a storage unit.
Londos and Samson are happy to do their part in helping people get back on their feet. For Samson, stepping into a leadership role while working on Simply Shelter is gratifying.
“It's really beautiful and it's fun to lead people,” Samson says. “I've never led before. My whole life I've avoided leadership. I just chose to just do my work as an engineer and never lead so this is a huge motivator.”
Londos says that Simply Shelter is looking for more volunteers to join on build days as winter begins. They're hoping to connect with others that are passionate about the unhoused issue.
“You have to care if you want to get off the streets,” says former tiny homes resident, Griffith.
Visit simplyshelter.org for more information or to volunteer.