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Are Storage Units the Key to Reducing Homelessness?

September 1, 2014
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Are Storage Units the Key to Reducing Homelessness?
The Transitional Storage Center provides more than 350 bins for the city’s homeless to safely store belongings. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
San Diego's Transitional Storage Center gives those without homes a place to stash their stuff.

Anyone that has moved can attest to the difficulty of moving your possessions from one place to another. But for the homeless, not only is hauling around their stuff a physical challenge, but also a blow to any sense of stability or dignity.

This was poignantly illuminated in 2009 when a group of San Diego homeless lost everything while attending a church event when the Environmental Services Department collected and destroyed their belongings.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter of San Diego filed a lawsuit on behalf of the homeless shortly after, which led to the city’s solution to provide a place for those without homes to safely store their possessions.

The Transitional Storage Center now provides more than 350 bins — each providing up to 96 gallons of space — for the city’s homeless, according City Lab. The program, which is run by service group the Girls Think Tank, is supervised by two full-time employees, enabling individuals to store or check on their belongings during the morning and evening.

“When you’re literally homeless, you’re like a turtle that carries everything on his or her back,” says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Which can be problematic if you’re walking long distances or trying to work. There’s always the danger of things being lost, stolen, or thrown away by police officers.”

San Diego’s move follows in the footsteps of Los Angeles’s Central City East Association Check-in Center, which also provides storage units for homeless. While the concept is by no means a solution to ending homelessness, it can help people avoid living on the streets long-term.

“Having a storage space can help someone get out of homelessness,” Stoops tells City Lab. “A lot of shelters will have no storage space whatsoever. You sleep on top of your stuff, you put it under the cot, you have to take it with you the next day.”

Indeed, having a space to store belongings helps alleviate some of the stress on the homeless to carry their stuff in order to be mobile. Keepsakes and personal documents or sleeping bags and clothing can be cumbersome to tote around, making it difficult for the homeless to move around. That could mean missing a job interview or medical appointment or making frequent use of public washrooms.

Storage units — while simple in concept — do pose some challenges. Primarily, funding them can be tricky. San Diego’s operational costs are anywhere between $80,000 and $100,000 annually, City Lab reports. And finding a location isn’t easy, either. San Diego’s program has moved twice since the city agreed to the space in the lawsuit agreement, currently residing in a San Diego Housing Commission parking lot.

Supervising these facilities is also a problem, Stoops adds.

“If people have access to storage units at all hours of day and night, then you need video surveillance or security personnel” on site, according to Stoops. “You can’t be doing drugs, alcohol, prostitution [in a storage-unit building]. You need to think of all those things. You need to be clear about what items are allowed to be stored.”

Still, if more cities found ways to convert abandon lots or shipping containers into spaces for the homeless, perhaps it could help ease an already harrowing situation. Storage units may be a small step, but the concept could be a stable step in the right direction.

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