‘Transformative’ sleeping cabins could be a good temporary shelter for the unhoused. Why aren’t there more?

Pallet shelters on Housing Matters' campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the clearing of the Benchlands draws closer, the hunt for space to accommodate the hundreds leaving Santa Cruz County’s largest homeless encampment is well underway. “Sleeping cabins” are a possible temporary option, with 40 of these shelters already on Housing Matters’ campus. That’s not nearly enough, and seeing more is unlikely until the city answers the pressing question: where?

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With the city of Santa Cruz set to begin clearing the Benchlands homeless encampment in early to mid-September, the big question remains: Where will its inhabitants go?

Space for all of the people leaving the mile-long stretch of tents and makeshift living structures between the Santa Cruz County Superior Court and the San Lorenzo River is limited as it stands, and the city and county continue to scramble to erect sufficient affordable housing developments the area so desperately needs.

Those officials are still looking for ways to add shelter capacity to account for the estimated 225-plus people living in the Benchlands.

One answer, probably more temporary than permanent, you might know as “tiny homes.” But those in the field say the proper term for the structures they are now considering the expanded use of is “sleeping cabins.”

Housing Matters, a key player in the field, now hosts 40 of these cabins on its Coral Street campus. They are in the form of Pallet shelters.

What are Pallet shelters? Pallet, a company based in Everett, Washington, manufactures insulated sleeping cabins with aluminum frames and floors, roofs and side panels made of a washable composite material. The intent: aggregate the cabins in a community, and, in total, there are now 82 Pallet “villages” nationwide that contain about 3,600 total shelters, according to Pallet Public Relations Manager Josh Kerns told Lookout on Tuesday. Each shelter costs about $7,000.

The 40 Pallet shelters found on Housing Matters’ campus have shelving units and enough room for two people. They are the original Pallet models, measuring approximately 8 by 8 feet. Pallet has since developed several newer models.

Are these ‘tiny homes?’

If you think that sounds strikingly similar to “tiny homes,” you’re not wrong. The difference, though, is a big one.

“Tiny homes” are meant to be permanent housing, typically with infrastructure like toilets, sinks and more; you might have seen these kinds of living quarters on shows such as the HGTV program “Tiny House, Big Living.” Pallet shelters, on the other hand, are strictly temporary structures designed to act as a safe place for people in the transitional process to permanent housing.

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“The objective is all to work with service providers to get the residents into permanent supportive housing to something better,” said Kerns, adding that Pallet has produced about 600 shelters this year alone. “This is meant to be a stop along the way.”

Kerns said more cities have begun adopting this model of transitional housing.

Construction of a Pallet shelter on Housing Matters' campus in 2020.
(Via Pallet Shelter)

“Pallet villages allow municipalities to rapidly scale in a cost-effective way, and provide a temporary transitional solution that helps fill the gap,” he said. “We would love to provide permanent supportive housing to everyone, but the cost is astronomical and takes a lot of time. We suggest that as many people as possible deserve a safe, comfortable shelter right now.”

Despite the structures’ temporary value, Housing Matters CEO Phil Kramer says he views the option as transformative for individuals needing shelter.

“These shelters represent this evolution of sleeping spaces and honors the dignity of each person by providing them with a sturdy, reliable place that has windows and a door,” he said, adding that these types of shelters are gaining popularity across the country. “It operates at a much more respectful and durable place for people to be during this temporary transitional time in their lives.”

Don Lane, former Santa Cruz mayor and board chair of Housing Santa Cruz County, agrees.

“It really works better for the individual,” he said. “They are more secure, private, and able to hold personal belongings. It makes people feel that it really is a safe place for them.”

The inside of an inhabited Pallet shelter.
(Via Pallet Shelter)

They are quick to set up, too.

“For something this viable as an interim shelter, it can be put together relatively quickly, and that’s a real advantage,” said Lane. “Redoing an old building or creating a new shelter can take years.”

Further, Kramer said the shelters worked wonders for Housing Matters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when the organization had to reorganize its congregate living shelters in order to socially distance.

“Using these Pallet shelters, we increased our shelter capacity for single adults and individuals from 40 to 57,” he said. “The way they provided people a healthy space in the context of COVID with regards to mental, physical and community health was really important.”

Kramer added that the Pallet shelters can house couples, as heterosexual couples are separated in the dormitory-style congregate living facilities.

What’s holding up siting more of them?

So if the shelters really serve as a good, if temporary, help in this crisis, why aren’t there a lot more of them being put into service?

Three things are holding that up: the lack of a location for a Pallet shelter village, uncertainty regarding money for the site, and staffing for the village’s operations.

“The limiting factors are typically location, the operator, and the funding for their establishment and ongoing operations,” said Lee Butler, director of planning and community development for the city of Santa Cruz. “Pallet shelters are but one option of many sleeping cabin manufacturers.”

Since Pallet does not provide shelters on an individual basis, the city must find a location where more of these shelters and accompanying facilities can be placed and tended to by staff, hence the term “village.”

The city has identified the former River Street shelter on the Housing Matters campus as a potential site for a Pallet village, or another kind of transitional shelter.

A Pallet shelter village on Chandler Boulevard in Los Angeles.
(Via Pallet Shelter)

“Those buildings are really unusable at this point and not worth investing additional dollars in upgrading or refurbishment,” Kramer said of those River Street facilities.

“This location would include a partnership with the county and Housing Matters for the operation of the expanded facility and for provision of services to future residents,” said Butler.

However, he added that it is unlikely that this would happen in time for the clearing of the Benchlands.

“The timeline for acquiring, constructing and establishing support facilities and staffing for the cabins does not align with the pending closure of the Benchlands,” Butler said, “so we do not anticipate new sleeping cabin facilities being available in time for that.”

And, of course, the 40 Pallet shelters on the Housing Matters campus aren’t nearly sufficient to accommodate all those needing a sleeping space.

“Forty is not enough now,” Kramer said. “It wasn’t before, or ever during the time I’ve been at Housing Matters.”

Clearly, more of these shelters would provide a much more reliable option for people during their transition out of unmanaged encampments. However, the question remains: where?

“The ‘where’ question is one of the biggest challenges we face as a community,” said Kramer. “I think the Pallets or something similar are the answers to the ‘what,’ but now we need to figure out where we can place and operate a facility for them as opposed to just having the shelters interspersed throughout the community.”

Only time will tell if — and where — more Pallet shelters or similar structures pop up around the county as local and state governments wrestle with acute affordability woes.

That said, Lane thinks that a better system is in progress, and these shelters are a big part.

“If you go back in time, and even somewhat in the present, responses were very reactive,” he said. “I think the community is impatient because it takes too long, but some of that time has been spent building a better system.”

“We don’t want to just go back and have the same big encampments happening again in a new location. I think we’re all ready to be done with that.”

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