Is a San Francisco Architect's Plan to Put the Homeless in Boxes Humane or Heartless?

UPDATED 08/31/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/31/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

San Francisco architect Donald MacDonald, 52, moved into his new office building last year and soon noticed that two homeless men were living in the parking lot next door. He called the police and had them removed, but when they returned, he decided to try to do something more creative—and compassionate.

Since he was an architect, the answer was architectural. MacDonald designed and built two 4- by 4- by 8-foot plywood shelters (for an estimated $500 apiece) that came complete with small windows, cupboards and foam rubber mattresses. He called them "city sleepers" and donated them to the two men. MacDonald says that it's only a temporary solution, but far better than the city's existing shelters.

"It's a waste to spend millions putting these people in temporary hotels," he says, "when all they really need is a place where they can be safe for a while and work out their problems."

Trouble is, now MacDonald is in something of a box himself. The state says the shelters are illegal and should be removed. MacDonald met with Mayor Diane Feinstein, but he couldn't convince her that his city sleepers would solve the problem for San Francisco's estimated 2,500 homeless people. Her advisory committee on the homeless also has taken a dim view of the shelters, suggesting that MacDonald's proposal to place 100 more around the city would divert money and attention from long-term goals. One committee member went so far as to call the sleepers "doghouses." Another member, Richard Park, says, "The boxes only address a portion of the homeless; we worry that it would salve the consciences of people without addressing the fundamental problems."

Meanwhile, MacDonald has received support from the local press and from people around the world. "People say that it's inhumane to have these people sleeping in boxes," says MacDonald, "but isn't that more humane than having them sleep on the ground or in the rain? Bureaucrats make things more complicated, more expensive than they need be."

All of which makes it unlikely that the authorities will approve of MacDonald's latest idea. He suggests that the plywood used in Candlestick Park for a stage and platforms during the Pope's visit next month to San Francisco be used afterward to construct more city sleepers. Says MacDonald, "There are so many problems that are so awash in laws and regulations that nothing gets done. All we really want the city to do is just lay off and let us give it a try."

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