Last Updated ( Saturday, 12 May 2012 10:27 )
I am a high school science teacher in an impoverished, gang-infested section of L.A. County, and as such have become impatient and disillusioned with what our schools, courts, and economy at large are doing for, and to, disadvantaged kids. In an effort to create a healthier alternative to the “ghetto” lifestyle (i.e., violence, jail, poverty, despair), I and a small group of others in the community have been researching strategies for creating small, more or less self-sufficient communities in the high desert just north of Los Angeles. Our eventual goal is to create a program by which young folks, especially single teen mothers, can build and independently maintain their own small communities, using only their own labor, and financed ultimately with their own money – even if they are at a welfare/minimum wage income level. Our group would only provide initial training, organizing, and financing of land and materials at no interest. Those completing the program (we estimate one year) would be granted ownership, and take over any payments, which should be minimal. For example, using proposed “appropriate technologies”, such as solar furnaces, composting toilets, cisterns, sane home design, greenhouses, etc., we estimate for a two-bedroom home a payment of less than $500 per month for only five years. This, for a house requiring virtually no heating or air-conditioning, where food, energy, and water bills could be next to nothing, and with neighbors that were chosen in advance. Four the past three years we have been testing novel, inexpensive, self-built home designs in the desert near Victorville, but have lacked the time to carry out all the research and testing needed to begin organizing communities in earnest. Since most of us have full-time jobs, progress has been frustratingly slow, most work being relegated to labor-intensive weekend trips to the desert every other week or so. This situation has prompted the recent creation of a formal non-profit organization, The Institute for Liberation Ecology, in the hopes that enough grant money can be raised to allow at least one of us to work in the desert full-time.
An unexpected and encouraging phenomenon has been the enthusiastic response of most of the youngsters we have presented the idea to – even hard-core gang members that otherwise give the impression that their ‘hood is the be-all, end-all of existence. It seems they are just making the best of a bad situation; given better options, interesting things may happen. We are hoping to create such options. If you are interested in receiving updates on our progress, or know of organizations that may be willing to offer support, please e-mail at:
“To be governed is to be watched, inspected, directed, indoctrinated, numbered, estimated, regulated, commanded, controlled, law-driven, preached at, spied upon, censored, checked, valued, enrolled, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
And therein lies the problem for most of humanity and extremely so for the houseless. A crisis exists here in San Luis Obispo County, in the state and in the world. As a houseless man, an activist for the houseless and a Cherokee, I will here offer insights into the siege we find ourselves in.
For the last eight months I have been houseless. Prior to this non-elective condition I find myself in I lived much like the rest of you. Life was tolerable. In November 2002, due to the winter weather, I availed myself of the Maxine Lewis (R.I.P.) Memorial Shelter here in SLO and there began one of the most life-threatening and illuminating experience of my existence. Shortly after arriving at the ML Shelter I contracted an upper and lower respiratory infection. Thinking it was just the flu, I let it run its course. Later it became apparent to me that the vast majority of my brothers and sisters weresick with the same thing, and stayed sick.
After looking around and asking questions, it was easy to see why. The heat ducting system was heavily contaminated with mold and was probably incubating bacteria and viruses. The heat duct outlets blew hot air from the ceiling directly onto the guests who tried sleeping on the top bunks, waking them at all hours of the night to a pounding head and saturated with sweat. Outside, the dumpster had rotted through, with raw garbage leaking onto the walkways which rats found irresistible! On top of all of this, the bathrooms were encrusted with mold and the plumbing had a mind of its own. To add insult to injury, no one knew for sure whether or not the sponges used to clean the bathroom were being used for cleaning the eating and serving utensils.
Diplomatically, I began requesting staff to report these conditions to their BOSSES, to no avail. Staff would say they turned in their nightly logs to administration with these problems were noted. Personally I spoke to these BOSSES about said conditions. After months of being stonewalled by the shelter director and her underlings, I began meeting with local officials who subsequently began conducting inspections, and the rest is history. With any luck the problems may be remedied this year. The secret to being rid of the infections, it turns out, is to get the hell out of the shelter and stay out! Five months and five rounds of antibiotics later, I recovered.
The Prado Day Center in SLO, under Dee Torres, butted up to the sewage treatment plant and surrounded by settling ponds with their associated stenches and fowl breezes, has its own message to the houseless – take the wretched contamination and take the insects and flies all over you, or leave it. The day center becomes ghostly after lunch is served, and most people head for clean air elsewhere – mostly downtown. In short, every aspect of services to the houseless is dysfunctional at best and draconian often. Staff insists on deeming us “clients” and treating the houseless as subjects, instead of fellow human beings and citizens.
On closer examination, one discovers that the system is driven by the almighty dollar – not compassion or charity or a sense of community or altruism. Wages and salaries take priority, driven by meetings, workshops and seminars laced with per diems and fleet vehicles. Government and private grant/aid money are the lure, doled out to the bureaucrats as a form of welfare. All along the welfare shuffle trail, the houseless are not included in decisionmaking about policy concerning their wellbeing and needs. A “Keep’em down on the farm” attitude prevails. Mainstreaming the houseless is out of the question. It is thought to be far better to enslave the houseless into “programs.” Programs that limit, debilitate, segregate and humiliate are the order of the day. Yet, there is hope. Hope springs eternal.
Some of this hope comes in the form of the SLO Human Relations Commission (HRC) with whom I have been meeting regularly. At my request, and that of Willow Walking Turtle, the HRC granted us a Working Committee on Houseless Issues months ago. This has given birth to an ongoing series of public forums/meetings involving the houseless, government and nonprofit agencies and the public working together to find and institute changes in the broken system. Traditionally, these agencies have had no oversight or accountability concerning their spending practices, overheads, or outcomes. This must all change. The public is invited to participate in finding solutions. All it takes is a phone call to United Way (541-1234) to be included. It is your duty and your birthright as an American citizen to hold accountable those who spend your tax dollars and charitable donations. This is going on right here in your town! Not in D.C. or Sacramento.
Furthermore, any of you who read this, especially those of you who are a paycheck or two away from joining us, should join in and help make the future of this community a humane, safe and respectful one. We, the houseless, will not be driven as beasts or outcasts any longer! Most houseless people (70%) are disabled. No one, not one of the well-paid experts in SLO, knows for sure how many of us there are. I can tell you that in SLO there could be as many as 3,000 and possibly as many as 10,000 in the county as a whole. SLO has 49 beds for the houseless and a small overflow system for women, children and families. These beds, decrepit as they are, were instituted in 1990 as a temporary response to the problems. Since that time, no one has planned ahead for the increasing numbers. If the money does not fall out of the sky, no one has the will to respond thus far to what has become a crisis in health, quality of life, human dignity, and civil rights. The time is now to make the corrections and to take on a balanced vision. We know there are dozens of Cal Poly students living on the streets, and we challenge the Cal Poly office of Housing & Residential Life to institute a permanent outreach to them. Bring them in!
Last December at Christmas-time guests at the SLO shelter were asked to list three items onto a personal “wish list” for holiday presents. Unfortunately most guests were let down once again by getting gifts that were useless to them. The real tragedy was that hundreds, if not thousands, of gifts given to the houseless by the community were withheld from them. The community had given generously, but the gifts were diverted. Administrators put them into their personal cars and drove off with them never to be seen again. Does Grinch ring a bell? A lame excuse was that they were being “stored.” The mindset of our alleged overseers is right out of Animal Farm: “It’s for your good that we eat these apples!”
Months ago I watched a ceremony at Railroad Square dedicating a statue to the Chinese laborers (slaves) who built the local railroad. That’s how this country does it – hunt down, decimate, enslave and ridicule a people, and a hundred years later give them a commemorative statue! Burn their homes to the ground, cut off their pigtails, rape their women, and a century later mock them with a monument. One hundred years from now SLO could not bear the shame of a statue to the houseless, or at any time. We say, keep your hollow statues. This is not Iraq and we are not your Palestinians, although we empathize with them. We prefer to walk free and tall now.
Give a hand, not a chain. Help us make the community whole for once, and for all.
| || Gerald "Zorro" May is founder of Zero Tolerance For Denied Shelter and can be reached at
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It all started with a concept, a dream, that a cozy, artful 300 sq-ft home and business sufficient for two love birds could be built for $1,500 with an ecological footprint a fraction of standard housing. Even before we broke ground, a hand painted sign announcing the “Straw Bale Cafe” was hung between two twisting birches to welcome mountain wanderers. We wanted to create an example that was replicable by average people with average skills. The decision to use mostly simple hand tools was founded on our love of the sound of a Ruffed Grouse beating its wings, the breeze exciting aspen leaves or the air forced through the tips of a raven’s wings. A thread of our life purpose is to live equitably among the 6 billion humans and 25 million other species. As household construction and heating are the second largest contributors to environmental impact, behind cars, making this dream a reality felt necessary.While most North Americas work 30 years primarily paying for their house, we felt sad that so many people’s life energy goes to mortgages instead of serving others or the Earth. In the end, the Earth bears the costs of our luxuries, suffering from clear-cuts, mines and pollution while our house sits empty all day while we work to pay for it. Why give our life energy to forest companies, bankers and a myriad of corporations making all the toxic materials that humans typically surround themselves with ? A quantum simplification in housing could free enough people to begin to turn the tide!Before ecological footprinting (EF) was developed by Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia, it was difficult to know if our lifestyles or housing designs were sustainable. EF measures the land needed from around the world to provide each person’s resources and absorb the wastes. By dividing Earth’s bio-productive areas among all humans, each has a 5.3 acre share. However, this leaves nothing for the 25 million other species. My partner, Erica Sherwood and I decided our goal was to leave 80% of our 5.3 acre share wild, meaning we would have to learn to meet all our material needs from 1 acre of Earth (Americans use 24 acres, East Indians use 2 acres). This is our personal, measurable sustainability definition. Read on to see how the Straw Bale Cafe measures up! The first stage was establishing our design parameters:1) Affordable by 90% of humans. Our goal: $1,500 USD (5 years salary of an East Indian).2) Living space on a par with global citizen: 150 sq-ft/person (740 sq-ft/person is US average).3) Ecological Footprint (EF) for housing to be 0.1 acre/person of the total EF goal of 1 acre.4) Sufficient insulation and solar input to use 1 cord of wood, resulting in an EF of 1 acre for heating, cooking and hot water.5) No toxic materials; minimal synthetic or store bought materials.6) Use of materials primarily from on site or from our bioregion.Meeting these constraints felt easy after witnessing common sense solutions scattering the countryside of communist Kerala, including a father and son building a house from timbers and bricks made on site. However, back in North America, building a simple home is not so easy, so our next stage of the project was:PrayersOur site was sufficiently wild that we did not fear arrest for holding a ground-breaking ceremony around an outdoor fire and praying. Although our home/office/cafe was to be tiny, still over 100 trees would die and Earth’s skin would be torn open for sand, clay and lime. On the assumption that we are similar to most two-leggeds, the cougar, bear, deer and marten will stay clear once the home is built, effectively shrinking their habitat. So we said, “I’m sorry,” “thank you,” and sang some pretty songs so the forest knew we meant it.The Building ProcessLots of friends became the cornerstones of this project. On a crisp autumn day we dug the perimeter trench for the 12' X 15' inside area that was18" deep and packed it with loose rocks to create a platform 25" wide and 10" above the ground level. Then we made a platform from cedar poles for the 18" X 14" X 36" straw bales to rest upon. Two parallel 15' poles of 5" diameter were capped on each end with an 18" 2 by 4 and four identical sections were built, then staked together and leveled. Maple spears of 2.5" diameter were fastened vertically to the cedar rounds rising enough to pierce midway into the second course of bales, giving the appearance of a bizarre torture device.All 6 courses of bales were placed and pinned with long maple spears. Four more sections of 15' cedar poles, similar to those described for the foundation capped the top of the load-bearing bale wall. The outer north and south poles were 27' long to provide a 4' and 5' overhang on the east and west walls respectively, which includes a balcony that overlooks the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Dag and Wolves’ Ears. Upon this platform, the ceiling and roof structures were made using Douglas fir poles. A dormer on the south side lets in lots of light and makes for a spacious upstairs love nest. A metal roof was installed, and beneath, 10" thick straw bundles were tightly wrapped with twine and tied in between roof rafters for insulation. Long roof overhangs keep the bale walls dry, even in a rainforest. The whole building was allowed to settle for one winter with the heavy snow load which compressed the bales six inches making it ready for mudding.The following summer, 3 coats of adobe were applied straight onto the straw with the first coat mixed a bit soupy and smushed into the straw. Our mix consisted of 80% sand, 10% lime and 10% clay with a 14 oz can of concrete and a 28 oz can of wood ash added to each wheelbarrow load for good measure. All materials were gathered within a 5 minute walk except for 250 lbs of lime and concrete from the devil. Once dry, the curvaceous finish turned a sensual golden-brown Earth tone.A Home TourAs I sit at the breakfast nook in the SW corner, I gaze across the 12' expanse to the kitchen counter formed by a beautifully curved cedar tree. All dishes live on a rack made of alder above the sink and drip into a tray that directs the water to the sink. Our sink is fed by a gravity-feed pipe from a small creek, and we drink delicious untreated, alive surface water. The grey water feeds our comfrey patch. A trap door in the floor leads to the root cellar used in lieu of its antiquated counterpart, the ozone depleting refrigerator. Scanning the 15' windowless north wall we first encounter the wood stove used for cooking, heating and hot water above which hang pots, pans, drying laundry, herbs and roadkill deer. In the NE corner is a stylish deco vintage shower-stall base with a retractable curtain. As we continue our circular tour, we encounter the office, complete with laptop computer and boombox. Files are neatly tucked under the stairs to the bedroom. Under the desk is a box of kindling and paper, a food box, a box of sewing supplies, a box of onions, and office supplies. In the SW corner hang bundles of garlic complete with stalks, somewhat hiding my bass guitar. The south wall is almost entirely glass and is now occupied by garden starts and trays of sunflower sprouts. The entire center of the room is uncluttered and spacious enough for 17 to dance. We are connected to the power grid but only use $3 of electricity per month and have a phone line.Social Engineering
How can two love birds end up not killing each other while sharing a 300 sq-ft home you might ask? Think about birds sharing a nest. When the wild Earth beckons all around, why pace the corridors of a large cage? Erica and I have agreed not to talk unless eye contact is made. I don’t walk in from outdoors and say, “what are you reading” unless her eyes give that café rise, otherwise I leave her be. Psychic space is easy to give and is footprint free.
So, how does the Straw Bale Cafe measure up? The footprint for the straw, wood, metal, glass, plastic, electrical system, gas (for milling and delivery) and concrete was 23 times lower footprint than standard US construction on a per-person basis (EF = .112 acres for Straw Bale Cafe, 2.53 acres for standard housing). The total cost was $1,394.
Jim Merkel and Erica Sherwood direct the Global Living Project and teach sustainability skills. They can be reached at:
Gr. 4 C.17 RR#1, Winlaw, BC;
VOG 2JO / (250) 355-2585;
The GLP Summer Institute will be August 5 - 18, 2001. The first week focuses on sustainability skills for educators, activists and students while the second week will include in-depth homesteading skills. Cost: $300 per week. Contact Jennifer Compton at:
or call (250) 352-1244
Resources: The Global Living Handbook by Jim Merkel, $5 plus s&h. Order from the Simple Living Network www.simpleliving.net or phone 1-800-318-5725.
For a more complete and detailed ecological footprinting of their 300 sq-ft home, email Jim and Erica at