Domes, sweet domes for LA's homeless: As the 'snowbirds' flock to California, a prototype self-help village has been created to shelter the destitute

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The Independent Online
WINTER is approaching, and once again a little-loved ragtag army of Americans is preparing to make the annual journey from cold climes to the warmer shores of the Pacific Ocean.

They are heading for California, where they will join tens of thousands already ekeing out an existence in makeshift tents and cardboard boxes beneath the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, pushing junk- filled trolleys around the streets of Hollywood, or dozing under the palms in Santa Monica.

No one knows precisely how many homeless there are in California, America's most populous state. A commonly quoted estimate is about 77,000, many of whom are mentally ill, alcoholics or drug addicts. But few dispute that Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the United States, rivalled only by New York.

This year's arrivals - known on the streets as the 'snowbirds', because of their migratory behaviour - will find themselves in a society that is even less welcoming than usual. Californians, hardened by the recession, appear to be growing increasingly intolerant of the homeless, who have reached record numbers.

In San Leandro, near San Francisco, the authorities are threatening to jail those who harass people for money. In Santa Monica, on Los Angeles' West Side, the homeless have been banned from sleeping overnight in the city parks. In Berkeley, people confronted by panhandlers seeking money are being encouraged to give them vouchers redeemable for food and other necessities - but not alcohol or tobacco.

Over the past year, the 'general relief' welfare payment has been cut by the cash- strapped Los Angeles county authorities from dollars 341 a month to dollars 214.

Even traditionally liberal areas seem to be running out of patience, and money - with one exception. For the past eight years, Ted Hayes, a political activist and former no-hope candidate for city mayor, has been trying to muster official support for a plan to create a shelter for homeless people. Now, after considerable ridicule, he has succeeded in creating his village: a cluster of 18 sparkling white domes.

It is an idea that came to fruition after Mr Hayes persuaded the oil giant Arco to make a dollars 250,000 grant. The city authorities, mindful that Los Angeles shelters only have a third of the beds needed to house the homeless on any one night, rushed the planning, health and safety paperwork through in a record-breaking three weeks.

'Los Angeles is the mecca of the homeless,' Mr Hayes said triumphantly. 'We should stand as an example to the nation and the world of what can be done to help. This is the first time anywhere that anyone has tried to do this.'

The domes, which cost some dollars 10,000 each, are divided in half to provide a room for two residents or a bedroom and living room for a couple - married, unmarried or gay. They are made of glass fibre and polyester, have a diameter of 20ft, are 12ft high and usually have two windows.

Residents, who have moved in from a cardboard shanty town, share a communal kitchen, dining room, bathrooms and laundrette. There is even one small dome that serves as a kennel for a resident's dog.

Mr Hayes intends the project, called Genesis 1, to be the first phase in the creation of clusters of domes across the city, and elsewhere, to serve as transitional communities.

He claims that such societies will provide sufficient support (counselling, retraining opportunites, medical help) to enable residents to return to mainstream life, or find a permanent home in larger domed 'alternative' communities, working in cottage industries. The first 24 residents are, therefore, being trained to manage other dome villages.

The community rules are more lax than those that generally apply in the city's other shelters. Alcohol is tolerated - as are drugs, so long as they are consumed off the premises. But anyone who fails to pull their weight in communal activities, or is disruptive, runs the risk of being called before a 'council' of all the other residents, which can turf them out.

The fundamental principle is self-help. 'We are not going to allow the Salvation Army or other agencies to run these facilities,' said Mr Hayes. 'Homeless people must run this themselves, otherwise we are simply creating another ghetto of housing projects that will eventually turn into slums.'

The domes have already caused mutterings from the missions and non-profit organisations that run Los Angeles' handful of shelters. It is not that they are against them, officials explain; they simply should not be taken to be a solution, or mistaken for acceptable permanent housing.

Whether the scheme will get beyond the preliminary stages is open to doubt - problems of finance, land, and public support are multifold. But Mr Hayes responds bullishly to his critics: 'Those people have done absolutely nothing but maintain their jobs while the homeless crisis has got worse. At least we are trying to do something.'

(Photograph omitted)