​Can tiny houses solve the homeless problem?

Elvis Summers

While tiny houses have become a middle-class obsession, complete with a TV show and coffee-table books, one man believes they could also solve a major societal crisis: Homelessness.

Elvis Summers, a Los Angeles resident who runs an online clothing business, said he came up with the plan after befriending Irene "Smokie" McGhee, a homeless woman who would come by his apartment looking for recyclables.

"A few weeks before building the house, I didn't see her coming around," Summers told CBS MoneyWatch. "She said she had gotten out of the hospital with pneumonia. She's very lucky she pulled through."

That inspired Summers to buy $500 worth of building materials and create a four-foot-by-eight-foot structure for her that he describes as "basically a tiny box on wheels." Wanting it to look like a house, he shingled it and added a real door. Summers says McGhee "loves" her new tiny home, which is parked outside of his apartment building.

After the house gained attention on the Internet, Summers started a crowd-funding project to raise $50,000 to build more of the structures for homeless people. He quickly hit that goal, and now is seeking to raise a total of $100,000 for the effort. So far, he's raised almost $78,000.

The structure has given Smokie a private, sheltered place to live, providing her with stability and the ability to further her ambition of finding work, Summers said. "Her husband died 10 years ago, and she couldn't afford the house payments and ended up homeless," he said. "She's pretty self-sufficient and wants to work."

Summers views the effort as providing more than simply shelter. As he sees it, the amount of money spent on addressing homelessness is often squandered. Los Angeles, he pointed out, spends more than $100 million a year to deal with homelessness. But about $87 million of that is spent on arrests, patrolling skid row and mental health interventions, according to the Los Angeles Times, which added that a city report found little coordination between city agencies in how they deal with the problem.

"We have more than enough money and resources to end the problem, but nobody cares," Summers said. "The money is overspent. It's wasted."

Summers has hit on a philosophy that's gaining traction with homeless advocates: The "housing first" approach, which says homeless individuals and families should first be given permanent rental housing, followed by treatment or other services they might need. Traditionally, social service agencies have focused on providing temporary shelter and treatment for addictions or other problems, with permanent housing only coming if they made headway. As of January, America had about 578,000 people experiencing homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The housing-first approach has been shown to save money when compared with the more traditional model for dealing with homelessness. The cost of providing an apartment and social work for Utah's housing-first clients is about $11,000 per year, while the cost for people living on the streets is $17,000 annually because of hospital visits and jail costs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As for Summers' tiny house idea, at least one homeless advocate says it has merit.

"I love the overall concept," Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, a Burlington, Vermont-based nonprofit that helps homeless and at-risk youths. "The whole housing-first approach married to tiny houses make sense."

But Redmond pointed to some potential problems, especially if Summers succeeds in building hundreds of new tiny homes for the homeless. Finding a location for them could be a problem, as well as making sure they don't create shantytowns, common sights in the U.S. during the Great Depression as well as in some developing countries.

"You have to make sure they don't devolve into Hoovervilles," Redmond said. Some Americans in the Depression "lived in tiny houses too, but they were disgusting. How are you going to regulate it so it doesn't become an American version of a favela?"

Summers has come under fire for one aspect of the design: His tiny house doesn't include plumbing or running water.

"A lot of people have commented negatively, saying, 'Why don't you build her a bathroom?'" Summers said. "I'm not creating a new problem," he said in response to the criticism. "Homeless people don't have anywhere to go to the bathroom already."

Redmond's advice is that Summers should consider adding those basics to his housing, noting: "You're setting someone up for failure unless you think through those things."