A novel approach to housing the homeless received a mixed review yesterday when an Ohio businessman invited D.C. officials and advocate for the homeless Mitch Snyder to tour a mobile homeless shelter designed to house up to 24 people.
Snyder pronounced the converted truck trailer a big improvement over other temporary housing, while city officials worried whether neighborhood residents would welcome the presence of such vehicles.
"Give us any vacant lot or a parking lot, or the stadium parking lot when the Redskins are not playing, and you can have a sheltered community," said entrepreneur Bradley Peters, who was showing off his new product on the Mall. "Our purpose is to provide temporary housing quickly, safely and cost effectively."
Peters has developed the mobile homeless shelter at a time when local governments around the country are grappling with an increasing number of homeless individuals and families. The District has experienced particularly rapid growth in homeless families during the last year and recently was forced to house some families in a high school because it could not find enough hotel rooms.
Peters, who heads Lifeline Shelters and is a former sales and marketing representative for a medical company, said he is prepared to build 800 of his shelters a year and lease them to shelter providers or sell them for $60,000 each.
The District government is paying up to $51 a day to shelter some homeless families in motel rooms. Peters says the city could lease a trailer for $75 a day -- at a cost of $3.13 each for 24 persons.
Peters' demonstration of the converted truck trailer yesterday was the first stop on a five-city tour aimed at convincing government officials that the trailer is a viable option while they are developing long-range solutions to the homeless problem.
Ricardo Lyles, head of the District's emergency shelter office, said the mobile shelter appeared to be an "adequate" option for housing homeless individuals, but he said city officials would have to study the concept.
"I'm not sure what community is going to say, 'Bring this to us,' " Lyles added.
Snyder, who used construction trailers to house the homeless in Georgetown a couple of years ago, called Peters' model a much more "sophisticated approach."
"It looks good and it is particularly going to be useful in areas that are just beginning to get involved in providing emergency shelter," Snyder said. "I think the cost is reasonable and as I travel around the country, I am going to tell people that this is an option."
The interior of the trailer shelter, which is 8 1/2 feet wide and 48 feet long, can be arranged to sleep individuals in bunk beds that line the walls or divided into compartments to shelter three or four families.
The trailer also is equipped with a kitchen and a bathroom and has three glass doors. Peters said that additional space can be created by placing three trailers adjacent to each other and using the middle unit for dining or other activities.
Peters tested his trailer concept earlier this year by getting Open Shelter Inc., a nonprofit group that runs a men's shelter in Columbus, Ohio, to use one of the trailers for three months. Kent R. Beittel, executive director of the Columbus shelter, said he would recommend it for any city seeking a temporary solution.
Homeless men in Ohio who were used to sleeping in a converted furniture warehouse that sleeps 100 men a night were skeptical when they saw one of Peters' trailers drive up, Beittel said.
"They said, 'My God, that would be like sleeping in a submarine or a cattle car,' " he said. "But after we opened it up and let people get a tour, the same people who complained slept in there. We had no trouble keeping it full."
Beittel said he views the trailer as a politically viable solution for local governments. "Once a community determines there is a need for shelter, it could respond in a couple of days." he said. "That is unheard of."