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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Alternatives to hostels: No. 2 - Dome Village, USA

May 20 2009
Buckminster Fuller‘s ideas live on in Los Angeles‘s innovative settlement How often have you been confronted with someone who believes that the simplest solution to "the homeless problem" can be found with the provision of shelter? And often a shelter that has little to recommend itself other than a bed under a roof. If a bed were the only requirement, there would be fewer people on the streets surely, and more either seeking temporary or permanent accommodation. However, loneliness, confinement, and even fear are factors that have to be considered when deciding whether to stay in a hostel for the night, or whether a year in a King's Cross bedsit is for you. Holistic approaches, ones that address not only shelter, but a variety of 'issues', are becoming more popular in the UK, but in America, certain practices have been in use for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, activist Ted Hayes was living on the streets of Los Angeles, trying to find a solution to the growing number of people living, like him, without permanent, or even temporary, accommodation. A student from the Buckminster Fuller institute, an innovative design science architecture college, approached him with a proposal for temporary housing. Unlike the usual temporary housing, this was not a corridor of individual rooms, or a row of bunk-beds, but a set of domes built to create a sense of community while addressing other practical needs. The Dome Village proposal went forward to a number of sponsors, and in September 1993, the American oil corporation Atlantic Richfield Company donated $250,000 (¬¨¬£132.940) towards construction. Under the guidance of Ted Hayes' non-profit organisation, Justiceville USA, the Dome Village opened its doors two months later. Executive director of the Village, Katy Haber, explains exactly what they are: "The Domes were never meant to be permanent alternative to rough sleeping," she says. "These structures cannot be permitted as permanent housing, as they are basically a solid tent, but they do provide excellent temporary housing that acts as a launch pad to permanent housing." Intended to be the first stage of Ted Hayes' 10-year National Homeless Plan, they are described as "a structural alternative for people who are unable or unwilling to live in traditional shelters." Although it may have an unorthodox ethos, there is a real sense of gearing people up to be eased back into permanent housing, by encouraging responsibility for their environment. Residents pay rent, contribute to the community by gardening or carrying out chores, and the staff provide a range of services, including substance abuse counselling, job training programmes, computer training, and advice on claiming benefits. They also offer arts courses, and provide an after-school programme for the children living in the village. In 1995, Haber and Hayes introduced these Angeleno residents to cricket, and they have had a team ever since. After touring in England in the autumn, they took the sport back to Los Angeles, where they worked with ex-gang members from the notorious area of Compton. "This team toured England in 1997, 1999 and 2001, and won the British Cup two years in a row, playing teams of expatriate Brits, Indians and Pakistanis," says British-born Haber. Each dome is inhabited individually or by a unit, family or couple, with the intention that a sense of ownership can develop alongside other skills. The Los Angeles Dome Village has been open for 13 years, and in that time has served more than 400 men, women and children. They even welcome pets. The Village website is filled with testimonies from former residents who have started working thanks to their substance abuse programme, or those who found the opportunity to train or study, find work, and become earners and rent-payers. Despite these accolades, and its success, the future of the Dome Village is uncertain. Having been built on an urban wasteland, the land rental was once within the capacity of Justiceville and their sponsors. Recently, however, this rent has gone up by more than 700 per cent, from $2,500 to $18,330 per month. The team has been given a three-month reprieve in which to find enough money to relocate or to rehouse their current residents. Although the team has been hugely popular with the homeless community, and even the media, others in the sector have treated the Dome Village with suspicion. Haber believes this is because it was too successful. "Although we have received funding from the (US) department of housing and urban development since 1995, the Dome Village has never really been accepted by other homeless activists," she says. "Why, if it works, has it not been duplicated around the country? This is a question asked continually by visitors who are impressed by the work we have achieved here." "Ironically, a sponsor on a recent visit said Dome Village was the world's best kept secret," she adds. Jack Tafari wrote to The Pavement as we researched this feature, wishing to submit a piece on his plans for a project in London, but we first put him to work writing about his visit to the Dome Village a few years ago. "It was in August 2000 that the US National Homeless Convention, held that year in LA's famed Dome Village, put out a call for delegates and I was given the honour of being chosen as one by the organisation I worked for at the time: Street Roots. I was given a return ticket to what's probably the homeless capital of the US, Los Angeles, and arrangements were made for my accommodation at the Dome Village. "At the same time another well-attended convention was also taking place in LA at the nearby Staples Convention Center, the Democratic National Convention, and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) were on full alert. The streets of LA during both conventions were filled with demonstrators and police. "With my arrival at the Greyhound terminal I learnt that my host at Dome Village, Ted Hayes, and others attending the National Homeless Convention, had been shot by the LAPD with their bean-bag rounds. The convention had certainly gotten off with a bang! "Dome Village was a magical place to me then; a true inspiration of what homeless people could achieve through their own sweat and effort. At the time I resided in a parking lot in Portland, Oregon, where we slept on scraps of cardboard, much as rough sleepers currently do in London. Dome Village of course had full facilities, and two of its twenty shelters had been converted to toilets and showers. "The spheres themselves were 20 feet in diameter and housed homeless families. Some of them were divided into two dwellings to house single adults. The Domes themselves were set on asphalt and shaded by laurel trees that grew in raised planter boxes. Many vegetables and flowers also grew in planter boxes. And the laughter and joy of Dome Village's residents wafted across the lot they lived on, like the smoke from the barbecued feasts they prepared. "Other members of the press constantly surrounded my host Ted Hayes at the time, and when I finally got a moment alone with him, I asked what Portland's homeless people could do to replicate the Dome Village model in Oregon. His answer surprised me. "'Just do it, Jack.' He said. "Of course, I reflected on what Ted told me, but decided against using the quote in my subsequent Street Roots cover story. After enjoying the hospitality of my hosts at Dome Village for three days, I braved the police cordons and crossed town to Los Angeles's squalid skid row, to see how other homeless people were living. There on San Julian Street, hundreds of people slept on cardboard, on sidewalks filthier than those in New Delhi. Shots of liquor sold for a buck each, and cigarettes for a quarter. "The agents of doctors endlessly cruised these blighted streets, in their Mercedes, looking for anyone still in possession of valid ID willing to sell their names to their Medicaid applications [a common scam in the US]. The payment for signing was $20: exactly the price of a rock of crack cocaine." Jack