/ By Robert Jones /
At the recent Upswell Lab in Los Angeles, it was easy to forget that thousands of homeless men and women were huddled on the sidewalks for blocks and blocks in every direction. On the second-floor terrace of the Star Apartments, birds chirped, bees buzzed and breezes fluttered the blue-striped market umbrellas.
A walking path circled the enormous terrace, winding past raised flowerbeds, exercise machines, art rooms, and dining areas. It seemed like the amenities deck of a high-end apartment building, not a supportive housing facility in the middle of Skid Row.
And that, says Mike Alvidrez, CEO of the Skid Row Housing Trust, is exactly the point. “As real estate developers, the question we wrestle with is: How do we create spaces that change the dynamic for people experiencing homelessness? How do we build in enrichment, recreation, quality of life, access to services?”
There probably aren’t many CEOs working in homelessness who would identify as real estate developers, but in Mike’s case, the shoe fits. “We buy real estate, finance it, find architects, engineers, builders. Like any developer, we ask ourselves, ‘What does the customer need?’ Our customers may be different from most, but their needs aren’t that different. They need a safe place that provides some stability and lets them participate in civic life.”
At the Skid Row Housing Trust, Mike has been working since 1990 to stem the tide in America’s most visible housing crisis. Starting with an effort to save turn-of-the-century “single-room occupancy hotels” (SROs) that provided affordable – if dilapidated – housing for thousands of low-income Angelenos, the Trust has morphed into one of the most innovative housing charities in America – and Star Apartments “is our most ambitious project,” according to Mike.
The modular, prefab building may look like something out of the Jetsons, but it provides permanent supportive housing for 100 residents and serves as a community center for residents of two dozen other buildings that the Trust owns and operates. It also serves as a kind of focal point for an issue that Mike fears can lose its visibility due to its very ubiquity.
“The insidious thing about homelessness is that the worse it gets, the more immune we become. When homelessness was rare – when it seemed rare – it was noticeable and alarming. But when you see it day after day, you become indifferent.”
By creating a building that shatters stereotypes and demands attention, Mike believes the Trust is forcing people to look anew at the homeless problem. “We’re finding solutions, but to take those solutions to scale, we need community support – and ‘curb appeal’ helps us build that support. When our buildings win national design awards, it really starts the conversation: ‘Let’s talk about what it means to promote an engaging life for formerly homeless people.’
“For me, that’s exciting, because we should all live in a place that we’re proud of, a place that makes us feel human.”
Robert Jones is the vice president of engagement and communications at Independent Sector.