Erika D. Smith

Temporary shelter from the storm of homelessness in Oak Park

Oak Park artist's project offers mobile shelter for homeless

Oak Park artist Aimee Phelps sparks idea for Art-through-Pods, a project that builds decorated mobile homes for the homeless, with the help of co-director Kevin Greenberg. Recipient Bobby Richmond died on Dec. 13, 2016 in an alleyway.
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Oak Park artist Aimee Phelps sparks idea for Art-through-Pods, a project that builds decorated mobile homes for the homeless, with the help of co-director Kevin Greenberg. Recipient Bobby Richmond died on Dec. 13, 2016 in an alleyway.

Six months ago, hardly anyone in rapidly gentrifying Oak Park paid much attention to Alfreda and Bobby. They were just two elderly homeless people, lugging around overflowing shopping carts and bags of precious stuff, struggling to make their way in the world.

If anything, people of means tried to ignore them. That happens when you live on the streets. You become invisible – unless, of course, you’re a nuisance. Then you’re just inconvenient and a lost cause.

But Bobby and Alfreda got lucky. They met Aimee Phelps and Kevin Greenberg, two Oak Park residents who refuse to see homeless people as second-class citizens and chronic homelessness as an intractable problem that can only be solved by government, and only after politically charged squabbles over money for shelters and housing.

In the vacuum that the county and city have left behind, the neighbors created Art-through-Pod, a project to build decorative, tiny homes that can be towed by a bicycle.

“The idea is that we can build these pods so people aren’t sleeping on the sidewalk and sleeping on the street, but we also cover them with art,” he said. “So instead of just leaving them with shopping carts and blue tarps in the alley, you’re looking at this.”

He pointed to Bobby’s pod, emblazoned with a replica of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” a bright spot of color in an otherwise dull and grungy alley in Oak Park. “It’s giving people more dignity so they’re not sleeping on the ground.”

So far, four people, all of them older, have pods. Five others will soon. Like Bobby, they might choose to park near McClatchy Park. Or like Alfreda, with her lavender pod reminiscent of an orchid, they might keep it in a parking space on 35th Street, moving it every few days to avoid the ire of nearby businesses.

They all will be able to stay dry when the skies open up this winter – an alternative to sleeping every night on the pallets that will soon open at churches for county-funded winter contingency services. And during the day, they’ll have a place to store belongings that might otherwise get stolen.

It’s not a perfect solution to homelessness, but what is?

“I don’t know what the answers are. I can’t solve it. It’s bigger than me,” Phelps said. “But you’ve still got to take care of what you have. People are people.”

In fact, that’s how Art-through-Pod started. Phelps and Greenberg wanted to do something other than look helplessly at the graying and limping men and women they would see sleeping on the concrete.

For Phelps, one woman stood out. Her name was Gwen.

“I thought, you know what? I want to build something for her,” said Phelps, an artist who has lived in Oak Park for 10 years. “I always wanted to build a tiny home sort of thing, and so I did it.”

She got her hands on some tubing and plastic cardboard, the material political yard signs are made out of. She attached some wheels and insulation. She threw in a mattress pad and a light, and painted it a striking shade of green. She added swirls and other finishing touches in the way that only an artist could.

At the sight of her new home, Gwen teared up in disbelief.

Then Phelps challenged Greenberg to build a pod for someone else. He immediately thought of Betty, a woman who slept on the ground beside the post office.

“She’s my mom’s age,” he said. “That’s hard.”

A project manager by day but a welder by night, Greenberg builds “crazy Burning Man-style” bikes for fun. He took Aimee’s pod design and made it better. He changed the shape of the pod to make it 8 feet long by 4 feet wide, small enough to fit on a sidewalk, in a parking spot and down a bike lane, but big enough to fit two adults.

He switched to welded steel for the frame, and layered it with plywood and some insulation. For a screened-in window, he used the grate from a box fan. And instead of bicycle wheels, he switched to harvesting used wheelchairs – an item that has proved to be both expensive and tough to find.

Greenberg and Phelps say they’ve reached a point where they need donations, particularly of old wheelchairs and money via a GoFundMe page. They’ve already had a few offers, one sponsor and a surprise $1,000 contribution from GoFundMe itself, but they could use more.

This is particularly true because word has gotten out. Phelps says she gets letters written on scraps of paper left on her porch asking for pods.

“People with tears in their eyes asking for a roof over their heads. All ages, men, women, mothers with children. Asking how do I get on the list? How do I get a pod?”

The county probably wouldn’t consider these pods to be homes. And understandably so because they don’t come with mental-health or drug-addiction services. Pods aren’t a proven track to permanent housing.

But it would be shortsighted and dismissive to say there’s no value in what Phelps and Greenberg are doing. Not only are they offering people shelter who might not otherwise find it in Sacramento; they’re giving people who have lived in Oak Park for years, disconnected and hidden in plain sight, an opportunity to be part of the community again.

People talk to Bobby and Alfreda now. They check on them. And, at least, for Alfreda, that has made all the difference.

“The rest of them don’t got no lock on their door,” she said of her homeless friends, staying in crowded shelters. “But guess what?” A proud grin spread across her face as she reached into the collar of a shirt she’s been wearing for two weeks and pulled out a key to her pod. “I do!”

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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