At the bottom of the metal staircase that shoots up from Laurel St. near the San Lorenzo River, three small trailers sit together.
They look like storage lockers on wheels. Built by Santa Cruz/San Jose-based non profit Simply Shelter, these “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.
“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 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.
“Alekz got in contact with me and that kind of started the process,” Griffith says. “I had already known a couple of the people that were staying there. I think there’s five [tiny shelters] here in town right now.”
Londos’ project first gained notoriety in 2020 during the pandemic, when he built his first tiny shelter for Ken Atkins, an unhoused man with a congenital heart condition. Atkins wanted to isolate from others to protect his health. Local news outlets picked up the story and Londos’ project got wide exposure.
“I just thought ‘I’m gonna make something that is more mobile and more versatile,’” Londos says. “It’s like a survival shelter.”
Londos, who has a background in freelance journalism and environmental activism, was inspired by tiny homes in drawing up plans for his shelters. He created a GoFundMe to build his first shelter and raised over $6,000. One runs around $1,200 to build.
As buzz around the project grew, Londos knew he needed help if he was going to expand his operation.
“I was building my second unit and I got overwhelmed with the complexity of organizing people: getting volunteers, getting supplies and scaling up,” Londos says. “It was hard for me to scale up because just so many people wanted these units.”
Simply Scaling Up
Londos’ project grabbed the attention of San Jose resident Jay Samson.
Samson, who works as an aerospace engineer for NASA, was looking for a meaningful project to get involved with. At the outset of the pandemic, he 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.
“Alex had this idea of bicycle locker-sized enclosures. So I remembered that when I was in the class and I said, ‘Damn, I can make hundreds of those.’ I could bring people together and just really transform homelessness,” Samson says.
Londos took him up on the offer 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. Through word of mouth and tabling at events like First Friday, the project grew.
“The amount of support that we get is tremendous. I mean, so many people 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 to not 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 says that shelter occupants make the effort to follow the rules and have built a sense of community around the project.
Marvin Griffith recognizes that the tiny shelters are not for everyone, but that those who take advantage of them are one step closer to more permanent housing.
“It gave me the ability to kind of take care of my stuff and move forward,” Griffith says.”it’s a good step up, but [..] it’s got to be seen that way, not as an end-all [solution].”
Griffith has a medical condition that will require him to get surgery and is currently staying at a hotel while he goes through the process. He is hoping to save some money and find stable housing after he recovers.
Griffith believes it’s important for people to understand that the unhoused population is not all the same. While some individuals do remain in those circumstances by choice, most others, like him, are looking for a way back to permanent housing.
“You have to care if you want to get off the streets,” Griffith says.
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.
“It’s like a puzzle and we have most of the puzzle together,” Londos says. “ And we were just missing a couple of [..] pieces.”
Visit simplyshelter.org for more information or to volunteer.