Torrance’s Tiny Home Village has shown early success by placing 40 individuals on a pathway to permanent housing.
The isolation of living in his car for nine years was so severe that when a passerby greeted him one morning, his reply came out as a strained gurgle.
Realizing that he had forgotten how to speak, the now 57-year old, formerly homeless Torrance resident, who requested anonymity for fear that potential employers may shy away from hiring him, started talking to his dog Kenzie for practice. In a decade of homelessness, Kenzie has been his greatest companion – but also a barrier to housing.
That’s because none of the shelters he looked into over the years accepted pets, the man said.
Now, the Torrance resident and Kenzie have found housing at the city’s recently opened Tiny Home Village, which follows a quickly growing model of temporary housing that, proponents and residents say, offers many advantages over group shelters.
One of those is allowing animal companions. But the biggest, say those who live at or help operate the shelter, is privacy and its accompanying sense of safety and autonomy.
The 57-year-old and Kenzie now live in a 64-square-foot Pallet shelter outfitted with a bed, shelves, electricity and air conditioning, and are joined by 39 other residents who each occupy their own tiny home.
“(In congregate shelters) you’re dealing with all of these different people in very close proximity with no privacy and no ability to focus on the repairs you need to make to yourself,” The 57-year-old said. “In a tiny room, you can close the door in your own space and have less external instability.
“It’s almost like a cast on a broken bone.”
The village, which is in a parking lot by the Torrance Civic Center, received City Council approval in June 2021 and is run by the nonprofit homeless organization Harbor Interfaith Services. The facility welcomed its first resident on July 5 and was full by the end of the month.
The staff there are now hard at work addressing the needs of clients – helping with health care, mental health care, job training, ordering identification, applying for housing vouchers – with the ultimate goal of securing a permanent housing placement for them
This process typically takes several months, said Program Director Shari Weaver, as there are more unhoused individuals seeking subsidized units than units available and not all landlords are willing to accept Section 8 housing vouchers.
During this waiting period, the Pallet shelters provide a stable home base.
“We do know that a larger percentage of people are willing to accept interim housing when it’s non-congregate, meaning that they have their own space, even if it is 64 square feet,” said Assistant City Manager Viet Hoang, who played a key role in getting the shelter up and running.
For the Torrance resident who spent nine years living in his vehicle with his dog, his tiny home has meant freedom from the stress of moving his car three times a day, finding his next meal and worrying that onlookers will call animal control.
“One of the things that people don’t understand about homelessness is that it’s not about comfort, discomfort,” he said. “It’s not about how hard it is to sleep on the bench. It’s about the constant instability.”
The Torrance village is funded for a one-year probationary period, while the city determines its effectiveness.
So far, that data is promising, officials say.
As of Tuesday, Aug. 30, 35 residents have enrolled in Torrance’s Section 8 Voucher housing lottery, 18 have enrolled with Venice Family Clinic for health care, eight have completed employment assessments with South Bay Workforce Investment Board and four have gained employment.
“It’s a great start and I am proud of the entire Team Torrance for moving so quickly,” Mayor George Chen said in an emailed statement, “bringing this facility into fruition in such a short time with the on-site facilities.”
Another outcome Chen said he was was happy about is the clearing of encampments from Columbia Park.
Every tiny home dweller, per the City Council’s direction, was living in Torrance before moving into the shelter, Weaver said.
So far, five residents have been matched with a new permanent supportive housing project that is scheduled to be completed in October. Three residents have received Section 8 vouchers and are looking for placements. One resident has already been permanently housed by renting out a room from a friend.
“Our biggest challenge is always going to be affordable housing in LA County,” Weaver said. “This is one of the least affordable communities in California, or even branching out, in the United States.”
There is also an availability problem, she said.
“There’s only about a 2.7% vacancy rate in the rental market in general,” Weaver said, “so imagine how competitive that can be for potential tenants that have never experienced homelessness and then (for) our folks that have experienced homelessness that have poor credit histories or no tenant history at all.”
Harbor Interfaith staffers work directly with landlords to assure them that rent will be paid and the unit taken care of. They also continue checking in with clients following their placement to ensure they have enough support to retain their unit.
Although not everyone in Torrance favored the village, Weaver said, she hopes this attitude changes with time as locals see the benefits of moving unhoused people into shelter.
“We are really focused on not having people living and dying on our streets,” she said, “having business owners that don’t have to struggle with a homeless person infringing upon their business, residents not being concerned about community parks where they take their family and children.”
Several measures have been put in place to ensure the shelter is as safe and non-disruptive as possible.
It is guarded 24/7 by Black Knight Security and is right by the Torrance Police Department building. Residents must adhere to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and the community rules if they wish to remain in their home.
Of course, not everyone wants to live under these restrictions. Since July 5, six residents have chosen to exit and five have been asked to leave for failing to comply with the house rules.
Still, many more residents have stayed than have left, including those who have voluntarily left shelters in the past.
One such resident is Gary Moore, 69, who has been living in Torrance since around 2013, surviving, he said, on a combination of Social Security, cheap hotel stays and couchsurfing.
Prior to that, he was living in a group shelter in Santa Fe Springs, where he was in a large room with around 30 other men, he said. Although the shelter was nice, Moore said he chose to leave after several months because he did not like sharing a space and being far from his community of friends in the South Bay and Torrance.
Living at a tiny home village feels like renting your own room, Moore said. He said he loves that he can walk over to the recording studio his friend of more than 50 years operates, where he occasionally helps out. Moore said he is currently working with Harbor Interfaith to find a subsidized senior housing placement, so he can grow old in one place.
Many of the tiny home residents are in a similar situation.
“We’re seeing that probably the fastest growing (homeless) population is our older adults,” Weaver said.
Around two-thirds of residents, in fact, are older than 50, according to data shared at a council meeting last month, a proportion Weaver said has not significantly changed since then. The village even has one client as old as 88, who has lived in Torrance for more than 60 years and only became homeless in the last few years.
Another commonality among residents is the prolonged period of homelessness they have experienced. The most common length of homelessness is six years and the longest is 40, Weaver said.
When the anonymous tiny homes resident, whose identity the Daily Breeze has verified, first lost his apartment when his freelance work dried up during the great recession, he never imagined it would take almost a decade to find stable shelter. He graduated from USC film school and had a fruitful career as a director of photography for commercial advertisements, he said.
“I am as guilty as anyone (of) not understanding homelessness from the outside. It’s been a real education,” he said. “Where I lived, near Fairfax and Wilshire, there were homeless people all around and I really didn’t appreciate the challenges.”
The tiny homes village’s first two months, meanwhile, have given the city a fuller picture of its unhoused neighbors, officials say. This, in turn, has created a better understanding of the factors that led individuals into homelessness and the tools they need to exit it.
For the anonymous resident and his dog, Kenzie, the village has proven to be a safe place that has lessened his stress and helped with employment assessment and job retraining.
For Moore, meanwhile, he has benefited from having a private room located near his community of friends, as well as from receiving quality healthcare.
For others, there is a big need for mental health care.
In an upcoming City Council meeting, staff will ask the panel to seek a grant from the South Bay Cities Council of Governments to bring a social worker on site to specifically focus on mental health, Hoang said. Harbor Interfaith staff will also continue making regular updates to the council on the progress of residents.
“Like any other organization and programs at start-up,” Chen said in his statement, “we will review, identify areas where we can improve, and make adjustments.”
Although the village is still in its early days, there is a palatable optimism emanating from the tiny homes and the staff.
“Being able to see someone moved from their most vulnerable,” Hoang said, “to a place where they can not just survive, they can thrive, is very gratifying.”