'Mad Housers' Deliver Shelter for the Homeless

Christian Science Monitor

"You can't beat the price. By the end of the day, someone will have a house for about $40," says Brian Finkle as he helps his crew pound the roof in place. The house--a 6-by-8-foot plywood box--is just large enough for a mattress and some personal possessions, but it does keep out the wind and the rain.

The tall, burly Finkle is not a typical construction chief with typical workers. Most of his crew wear button-down business clothes Monday through Friday and work as architects, accountants, industrial designers or social workers. But every other Saturday, they don green sweat shirts that say, "We're Nuts About Huts" and meet in an old warehouse to build plywood shelters.

Finkle, an architect who just earned his master's degree, is the president of the Mad Housers, an energetic band of 15 young professionals determined to do something about Atlanta's growing homeless problem. The group was organized two years ago.

"The huts are just a Band-Aid solution, but at least they get people off the streets and out of the cold," Finkle says as he quickly drives a nail into a 2 by 4. "We usually build two huts a month, but I'd like to start building three."

The Mad Housers have erected 54 huts, which are placed in obscure areas around the city. They work in donated warehouse space and use scrap materials and lumber they have salvaged from local construction sites. As soon as they complete the walls, floor and roof, they load the panels into a '73 pickup and drive off to the selected site, where they put the hut together.

What these weekend carpenters do is illegal, because the huts are built on government or private property and do not comply with city codes. But in the past two years, the group has provided shelter for between 100 and 200 people.

The Mad Housers have also brought the plight of the homeless to public attention. Dubbed the unsung heroes of the homeless, they have received national media coverage; been recognized by the Georgia chapter of the American Institute of Architects and by Architectural Record, a national journal, and won numerous awards. One is the Giraffe Award, a plaque given to groups and individuals who stick their necks out for community service and the betterment of mankind.

Two of the Mad Housers addressed the American Institute of Architects' Housing Conference in Washington and four other members built and displayed a hut recently in New York at an exhibit entitled "If You Lived Here." They also constructed two huts in the city.

In Atlanta, some city officials reacted to the Housers' activities as an infraction of the law. Atlanta's Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs tore down two huts built near a residential area, and the Georgia Department of Transportation razed one built on access land.

But most of the huts, which are scattered throughout the downtown area, are left undisturbed by the city. The underground construction crew seems to have an informal alliance with local officials and the city police. Architect Mike Connors, a founder and former president of the group, says: "City officials have been very supportive and open-minded. They could have passed stronger vagrancy laws, but they've let the huts stand."

Last winter, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young honored the Mad Housers and promised them a $30,000 community block grant to build a pair of two-person bungalows with complete facilities. But the group must first obtain tax-exempt status before it can claim the grant and begin building.

Amy Phillips, an anthropologist and secretary of the group, says inquiries about building huts and low-cost housing have come from England and West Germany, as well as from people across the country. "In the past year and a half, we've sent out close to 75 starter kits," she says. Kits include hut designs, lists of materials and advice to groups on selecting a site and getting tenants.

The inspiration for forming Mad Housers came from Finkle and Mike Connors, who, as graduate students at Georgia Tech, got the idea while writing their master's theses on homeless shelters in Atlanta. After looking at some of the makeshift cardboard huts people built to avoid going to city shelters, Connors and Finkle decided they could help build better, more durable huts. Along with three other architectural students, they erected the first hut.

The group worked closely with Jim and Anita Beatty, the directors of Atlanta's Task Force for the Homeless, to learn where the homeless were located. Anita Beatty says: "They're a gutsy group--they're demonstrating the irony of Third World kind of housing in a First World country. They're also making a strong political statement for the homeless."

Initially, the homeless were skeptical. "Clients wanted to know how much the huts cost, what kind of forms they had to fill out and if we were going to preach to them," Phillips recalls. Now that the Mad Housers have become a familiar group around the city, many of the homeless seek them out and are even on a waiting list.

Finkle explains: "We try to get the homeless to help build their own huts, so they have a sense of ownership and learn how to make repairs. They also help pick a site--it's important to put . . . (the huts) where they want to be."

Most of the huts are built within an easy walk of downtown Atlanta. Many are along railroad tracks, in abandoned lots and under bridges or viaducts--in areas where the homeless already gather and live.

Notes Cabell Heyward, an industrial designer with the Mad Housers: "We try to build (the huts) close to a water supply, soup kitchen, bus line, labor pool and canning route."

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