Skip to main content

What do the homeless need? A city of geodesic domes, apparently

What do the homeless need? A city of geodesic domes, apparently

Share this story

Silicon Valley is not exactly known for tactfully interacting with San Francisco's low-income and homeless populations. Perhaps no piece of writing could convey this better than a vivid 2013 Facebook rant by entrepreneur Greg Gopman. After a walk through downtown San Francisco, Gopman complained about a downtown where "the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city," since "there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different."

After the post was picked up by Valleywag and others, Gopman attempted to both salvage his reputation and improve the underlying problems by devoting himself to researching potential solutions to homelessness and helping organize alongside existing nonprofits. He's been writing about the project for some time on Medium, and his efforts have been covered in, among other publications, TechCrunch. Before journalist Susie Cagle posted it on Twitter today, though, I had never encountered his plan for geodesic dome compounds.

The "Community Transition Center" project — which lists its organizers as Gopman-led group A Better SF and homeless aid nonprofit Downtown Streets Team, along with architectural studio Byrens Kim Design Works — is like a 1960s Popular Science illustrator's conception of a Martian refugee camp. It envisions a center for "highly employable" homeless residents looking to get back on their feet, providing six months' worth of shelter, counseling, and vocational training. It can, in theory, house up to 125 people, who will either pay $250 per month in rent or work on community service projects. It is also made of domes.

"Dome sweet dome"This will include a welcome dome, a kitchen dome, a laundry dome, a computer room dome, and 100 "personal domes," which the site promises can be set up for $599 apiece. They are referred to as "dome sweet dome." The entire structure would theoretically cost $200,000 to build and could be set up or taken down in 30 days, so vacant land or future construction sites could be temporarily converted into futuristic dome cities.

Why domes? "Domes are the most cost effective structure my team has found that offers weather resistance, lockable doors, easy set up / takedown time (two hours), and can be temperature controlled with the addition of electricity via solar panels," he told The Verge via email. "Also, the domes are aesthetically pleasing to the eye, which is a big deal when placing them in neighborhoods. Tents freak people out these days."

I will fully admit to having spent less time researching architecture and solutions for homelessness than Gopman and his partners. Traditional homeless shelters have clear drawbacks. As some pieces linked by one of Cagle's followers points out, simply providing housing has proven one of the best solutions, but it's difficult to implement in a tightly packed city like San Francisco. (Cagle says she's writing her own story about Salt Lake City's homeless.) Camp sites like Dignity Village, which was formally granted land in Portland, Oregon around 10 years ago, bear a slight resemblance to the Transition Centers.

"The domes are aesthetically pleasing to the eye, which is a big deal when placing them in neighborhoods."

So I can't definitively say that a miniature city of solar-powered domes wouldn't help people who are, as A Better SF writes, "more than capable of working their way out of homelessness if only given the chance." But it's not immediately clear that building one would be better than putting $200,000 into other homeless aid projects. It's also not clear how it will run what seems like a full public community center, including "a computer lab, co-work space, dining hall, kitchen, donation center, car share, bike share, community garden, bathrooms, lounges, laundry room, showers, and free Wi-Fi." It's not totally clear whether these things fill the biggest aid gaps, or if they're even what homeless residents need.

Community Transition Center

One of the benefits, according to the site, is that the centers are 90 percent cheaper than "any other homeless shelter solution." This is apparently partially because it "operates on a zero-cost basis, as our transitional workforce crowdfunds for the neighborhood betterment projects they do, all of which are requested from the community." How is that number calculated? "When you compare the costs to build Transition Centers ($200,000) with traditional homeless shelters (many millions), the price difference is at least 90 percent," said Gopman. "On a yearly basis, Transition Centers ($200 a month per person) costs 80 to 90 percent less, depending on which shelters numbers you look at."

The pilot program won't accept people with substance abuse problems or mental illness

While the site says the centers will provide counseling, it seems like it's more in the "life coaching" sense than the "therapy" one, as they will "help people overcome the major mental blocks holding people back from fulfilling their potential." The pilot program will only accept people who are "drug-free, have no history of mental illness, and who are determined to working their way out of the difficult situation they're in," leaving (by its measures) around 40 percent of the total homeless population. The site gives the fairly reasonable explanation that these centers aren't equipped to handle them as well as shelters, but it's also because they would impede the ability to "set a standard for which homeless can be considered responsible and accountable" and make the whole population less attractive to employers.

Compared to the project's altruistic mission, Gopman's introduction is a little jarring. "A year ago, I was crucified by the media for venting my displeasure with the state of homelessness in San Francisco. I was insensitive with my words, but I wasn't wrong that our system fails to address the needs of the community." That doesn't quite capture his original contention that "in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that's okay." His work (ideally) isn't an extension of some excessively blunt truth, it's a total about-face.

Either way, he hopes that the domes will soon be upon us. Gopman has given us a surprisingly optimistic 60-day timeline to launch in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or San Diego, with potential plots laid out in a planning document. "All we need is a large plot of land to work with and to hold a few neighborhood meetings to explain to the community what we're doing." According to the site, his project will also need a one-year lease and a "small investment."